Private lodging in Cuba
By Laura Álvarez
Here is a Caribbean island that is constantly reinventing itself, a place where its impressive sun can blaze, and yet, nurture. Most foreign destinations wish to emulate our dazzling glow. In Cuba, the course of events runs at an incredible speed; and like in other parts of the world, its economy permeates its social dynamics. Private business initiative has sprung in an unusual, and at times, troubling fashion. The public mindset, however, is still struggling with its memories of the ban on private property that was imposed many years ago. Notwithstanding, the economic crisis that befell Cuba in the nineties accelerated a shift in favor of private enterprise as a way to satisfy household shortages. In this context, informal home rentals to foreigners began to proliferate. But this business model was also helping to foster a sort of “sex tourism,” since the formal hotel sector was out of bounds for locals. Up until then, international tourism had not been promoted, but the growing numbers of foreign visitors that followed the collapse of the Eastern European socialist community encouraged an increasing number of Cubans to rent their homes as a means to bolster their personal income.
In 1997, the lease of private homes was legalized; however, excessive taxation drove many of the initial micro entrepreneurs to bankruptcy, and only the most established operations managed to stay in business. This result was also attributed to a lack of expertise and experience among these proprietors, as well as a poor foresight by the Cuban State that had failed to develop an infrastructure in support of its private sector as a sustainable source of living for Cubans and a steady generator of foreign-exchange streams.

While the lease of private homes had a confusing origin, its current picture is bright. Cuba is implementing an economic and legal restructure that has stimulated both ownership and operation of private businesses. In other words, a public need eventually prevailed over a reluctant official stance, and now, the government is showing interest. The Cuban State has found this new business model desirable. The sector constitutes a pool of tax revenue, and its establishment and/or operation do not require government investment. In addition, jobs are being created. Each establishment needs employees to look after cleaning, laundry and food services, and some home lessors have included taxi and tour-guide services to their offers. The regulatory environment to incorporate a new leasing venture has been relaxed, and the existing lower tax burden is helping home-rental businesses to stay afloat, to the satisfaction of their operators.
The diversity of present-day Cuba travelers is quite different from the nineties. Now, the country is witnessing more visitors who come with their families or who are seeking health treatment, natural attractions and/or sport events. In particular, foreign travelers want to experience Cuba’s hopes and transition, as the country opens up to foreign direct investment and mends political ties with the US.
The best way to get a firsthand look at the changes in Cuba is to embark on a personal discovery journey. For this reason, a lot of foreign visitors are choosing to stay in private homes. Samples of the day-to-day life in a Cuban neighborhood, these homes welcome their guests warmly and professionally. Many rental managers have academic qualifications and can speak several foreign languages; hence, they can successfully engage in cultural exchanges with their guests. Furthermore, given their price-quality ratio and tailored services, private homes are a preferred option over their hotel competitors.
Just like in other parts of Cuba, each section of Havana is distinct for its socio-cultural, natural and development characteristics, and these traits influence the nature of its lodging services. For instance, Havana features contrasting architectures: in its old town (Habana Vieja), the buildings are colonial; while luxury residences from the fifties rise in its Vedado and Miramar neighborhoods. In other regions, like Viñales and Trinidad, the hotel accommodation capacity is not large enough to cater for the high influx of tourists who are keen to see the unique scenery there. Most of the homeowners in those two towns are in the rental business that in turn helps support the local tourist activity.

In Cuba, the lease of private homes has gone through various phases before its current condition that exhibits a great potential for further development. The increase in tourist inflows that is expected for the next few years will put the sustainability of this sector to the test.