I Backpacked Through Cuba Without Airbnb Reservations

Airbnb’s Dropdown Lists Symbolize the Impending Tide of U.S.-Dominated “Free” Market

  • Photo Mattha Busby

There has been an alarming lack of media coverage on Airbnb’s expansion into Cuba, beyond the faux-objective Yogi Bear “Oh, this happened,” the almost-PR reporting of the BBC or the business-fascinated rambles of Fast Company.

Last month my friend and I backpacked from the easternmost tip of Cuba inland and beyond Havana, and back, with no travel plans nor any reservations. And we did just fine. Perhaps Americans are afraid of being stranded upon the Bay of No-Hospitality— naturally they want to make reservations this time.

Airbnb, a start-up born seven years ago, is on the heels of a Netflix and Mastercard American intrusion into Cuba which bears all the hallmarks of globalization. Dragging one culture into our own conception of the 21st century— a 21st century that doesn’t use business cards as many casa particular proprietors do, but one that uses drop down lists and service charges—is what we Westerners have been doing for centuries.

For the past weeks, since the start of the month, Airbnb has been serving as the middleman between more than 1,000 hosts in Cuba and tourists throughout the world, but primarily in the U.S. But Cuba doesn’t need this middleman; they already have one. You say “Chao, dónde está las casas particulares” and you’re pointed in the right direction. It is terribly simple to find a room. When we arrived in Havana we strode up Calle Brasil and viewed different rooms in colonial houses, terraced flats and detached houses until one caught our imagination.

Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk describes Cuba as not having changed in 50 years, caught in a time warp. Well, hurray. AIRBNB is here to guide Cubans out of their infancy and into a digital age where locals don’t need to point you in the direction of a room because you already have your all-inclusive package.

Perhaps Americans are afraid of being stranded upon the Bay of No-Hospitality— naturally they want to make reservations this time.

Their expansion into Cuba comes amidst an ongoing normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S., which recently saw Cuba removed from an American list of state sponsors of terrorism —a list that Venezuela remains on. What was their crime, resistance to neoliberalism?

Nathan Blecharczyk, sullen-eyed, collar creased, said at the start of the month that there was already an existing market Airbnb could “tap into” and that with the extra revenue from having an American audience Cubans could afford to upgrade their homes with basic things like repairs to the water pressure.

Every casa particulare we stayed in was immaculately kept and there was certainly nothing wrong with the water. The prices are standardised, as most things are within a socialist state, at $25 per night for a room that can house up to four. From Varadero, to Matanzas, to Havana, to Vinales and back we were attracted to rooms by the blue anchor which resides above the doorways of the houses registered to be casa particulares.

We experienced firsthand the welcoming, warm, attentive yet reserved hospitality that Blecharczyk—despite admitting he has never visited Cuba—described as a “surprisingly well-developed tradition of renting out rooms, which compensated for some of the technical hurdles in doing business there.” How disgracefully patronizing. Luiz, a propietario whose room was the only room we stayed in for longer than a night, could probably give Blecharczyk lessons in propriety.

Photo Mattha Busby

Airbnb is advertising similar rooms to the ones we stayed in for prices from around $14 to $60. The anarchy of the free market is creeping in to upset a system that does not exactly distinguish between a nice room and a great room—they are all the same price.

Various news outlets have claimed that there simply aren’t enough rooms. Apparently Airbnb is remedying the fact that the only problem is that “there’s nowhere to stay.” In fact, there is a surplus of rooms. There is a vast array of choices everywhere you go. Airbnb say they have “tapped into an existing network.” Yes, an existing network that is quite functional as it is, but one which admittedly wouldn’t pull intrepid, red-faced Texans with dreadful Hawaiian shirts en masse to Cuba.

Perhaps thats their problem though. The existing informal networks, through which one could find a room, worked just fine. This is about tearing apart local networks, making them dependent on U.S. services and providing American tourists with the corporate familiarity they so adore. Inevitably, the Cuban middlemen will be marginalized and Airbnb will take the surplus profits back to San Francisco with them.

Globalization is great when it brings cultures together and allows for an exchange; not when one culture suffocates another and implies its primacy. Airbnb’s dropdown lists are less stressful than finding a room on a whim though, I guess.

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