Travelers visiting Cuba can now find a place to stay through Airbnb, in what experts say is the most significant U.S. company expansion into the island nation since trade and travel restrictions were eased in January.
The San Francisco-based short-term rental listing company said Thursday it has more than 1,000 listings from Cuban hosts.
Forty percent of the listings are for the capital city of Havana, and several other cities also list options, according to a statement from Airbnb.
Listings are currently limited to licensed U.S. travelers, who can prove that they are visiting Cuba under one of the 12 categories permitted under the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The concept of hosting guests in private homes is already an accepted part of the country's culture. Casas particulares, a network of homestays run by private entrepreneurs, have been in existence since the 1990s, said William LeoGrande, a professor at American University who specializes in U.S. foreign policy to Latin America.
"It's very difficult to live on your regular state sector salary," he said. "Getting access to hard currency in some fashion is really important for people's standard of living."
"Airbnb going in there now and creating listings will revolutionize this sector of the Cuban economy," LeoGrande said.
But the economic impact will be limited. Housing conditions in Cuba are particularly bad, and construction material difficult to come by, meaning only those who can afford it will be able to list, said Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Slow and expensive Internet access in the country could also limit hosts' ability to connect with potential customers, LeoGrande said.
Internet access at tourist hotels can cost $4 a minute, and newly opened government Internet cafes only offer a slightly cheaper rate of $2 a minute, he said.
Other companies have already started to make inroads in Cuba, including Mastercard, but Arcos said Airbnb could be different.
All companies attempting to invest in Cuba have to go through the Cuban government, and these partnerships are not open for private citizens, he said.
"This is one of the few examples where I can see most of this interaction of this expansion into the Cuban market benefiting more of the private sector than the state," Arcos said.