HAVANA (AP) – Online home-rental service Airbnb says it is exploring a significant expansion of its operations in Cuba two months after it became the first major U.S. business to enter the island in decades.
Chief technology officer Nathan Blecharczyk, one of the firm's three co-founders, told The Associated Press on Wednesday during his first trip to Havana that Airbnb had requested a special license allowing people from outside the U.S. to use the San Francisco-based business to reserve stays at private homes inside Cuba.
Airbnb currently books lodging only for U.S. residents going to Cuba for 12 special purposes, including educational travel, religious outreach and appearing in athletic and artistic events.
President Barack Obama created blanket permission for those 12 types of travelers to go to Cuba when he declared detente with Cuba late last year and carved a series of exemptions in the half-century trade embargo on Cuba. Because the exemptions are meant to increase personal interactions between Cubans and Americans, they do not apply to the majority of travelers to Cuba, who come from Canada, Europe and South America.
"We are applying for a special license to accommodate non-Americans who want to travel to Cuba for approved reasons. That's something that's in process," Blecharcyzk said. "Airbnb has the majority of its users outside of the U.S. ... I think there is huge potential to market to that audience."
He said he was optimistic about Airbnb's prospects but had no idea if the proposal would be approved.
"It's too early to tell," he said. "I think the intent is there coming from the president in terms of the way he talks about his hope for Cuba and the direction he wants to take, but there is a bunch of process that has to be worked through."
Airbnb has become an important player in international travel by connecting private home owners around the world with travelers who want to rent spaces ranging from a room in an occupied home to an entire house. It has added more than 2,000 listings in Cuba, which has long had an extensive network of legal private home for rent to travelers.
Blecharczyk said homeowners renting through Airbnb have earned $650 apiece so far, a significant amount of income in a country where the average salary is around $30 a month. He said he expected great future growth in Cuba, particularly if the U.S. continues to loosen restrictions on travel.
"Here is an island where there is a lot of pent-up demand to visit. We expect a lot of travelers to want to come here and yet there isn't a lot of hotel infrastructure," he said. "I think Cuba could easliy be on that short list of the places Americans go."