WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Jul 2015 | Commentary

Airbnb in Havana: Cuba’s Untapped Potential for Online Entrepreneurship

On a recent people-to-people delegation I led to Cuba, a colleague and I tested the newly available Airbnb Cuba service to book accommodations in Havana. Since the service went live there three months ago, it has brought to light the enormous potential for online platforms to fuel the ongoing economic reforms on the island.

SEE ALSO: What Can We Expect to Come From U.S.-Cuba Human Rights Dialogue?

But while we certainly saw Airbnb’s potential, it clashed with the reality of inadequate internet access in Cuba. Lack of internet access in the homes and generally weak connectivity meant that the Airbnb website was updated only sporadically, and in our experience it frequently took a full day to hear back from Cuban homeowners.

After 3 or 4 attempts, we did eventually book a room. However, it was nowhere near as easy as it should have been.

Cuba is ripe with opportunity for the popular room-sharing site and other peer-to-peer platforms. In some ways, Airbnb-like room rentals have been the norm for independent travelers to the island since the Cuban government began allowing Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes in 1997, creating so-called casas particulares.

More recently, as a part of President Raul Castro’s economic reforms the Cuban government lifted the limit on the number of rooms that each casa particular could rent out. This reform both increased the supply of rooms available to travelers as well as the amount of money each casa particular owner could earn in the private economy.

The established nature of peer-to-peer accommodations in Cuba should make for a smooth transition to an Airbnb online platform. According to Airbnb, only three months after opening up access in Cubathere are already 2,000 rentals available on their platform, the fastest-growing launch in Airbnb history.

This is not surprising. The Airbnb model fits perfectly with the highly decentralized casa particular tourism infrastructure on the island. And Airbnb is in place just in time to help connect everyday Cubans with rooms to share to a global marketplace of travelers keen to visit Cuba. In the first quarter of 2015 Cuba has seen a sharp rise in tourism – 36 percent more visitors arrived on the island.

The only problem: Airbnb relies on internet access, which is highly limited in Cuba.

In 2013, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported the number of Cubans that can access the Internet from home was just over 3.4  percent. By comparison, 74 percent of Americans have Internet access at home. In Puerto Rico, 79 percent of the population has Internet in their homes.

Worse yet, according to statistical findings from Google Analytics, Cuba has the slowest connection speed in the Western Hemisphere and is among the slowest in the world. And for many Cubans, accessing the Internet is still unattainable due to the exorbitant hourly rate.

However, the Cuban government appears to apprehend that broad Internet access is essential to a 21st century economy and has taken concrete steps to expand accessibility. It has opened dozens of Internet cafes over the past couple years and, last month, it rolled out 35 Wi-Fi access points across the country. The Cuban government also recently slashed the access prices from $4.50 to $2 an hour, though this is still cost-prohibitive for most Cuba households.

While the Cubans may have been slow off the mark to fully embrace the need to invest in their communications infrastructure, the U.S. embargo on Cuba has also hindered American firms providing vital infrastructure that would have expanded Internet access in Cuba.

President Obama has made important strides toward allowing U.S. firms to invest in information and communications technology. But investors and companies alike require greater assurances that they are on solid business and legal footing before they plow ahead into the challenging business environment that is Cuba today.

Congress can provide those assurances. Senators Tom Udall (D-NM), Jeff Flake (R-AZ.), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Mike Enzi (R-WY) have introduced the Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act — or Cuba DATA Act. Its policy objectives are straightforward: to remove legal restrictions on American businesses and allow them to help Cuba build the 21st-century telecommunications infrastructure that can empower Cubans to realize their full potential.

This is in the best interest of both the U.S. and Cuba. A prosperous and stable Cuban economy that allows a broad cross-section of everyday Cubans to benefit from the rapidly expanding tourism market will improve the lives of millions of Cuban. Low-cost, high quality and accessible Internet will be required to make this happen, and the Cuba DATA Act is an important part of the puzzle.

Passage of the bill will require the support of Senators and U.S. Representatives on both sides of the aisle who are truly dedicated to updating U.S.-Cuba policy for the 21st century. Fortunately, the bipartisan support for the DATA Act shows Congress is increasingly aligning itself with the two-thirds of Americans who support normal diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, a trend that appears to have reached unstoppable momentum.