Hotel Shortage Prompts Cubans To Host Tourists
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Tomorrow, JetBlue will make history with the first commercial flight between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961. The flight will depart from Fort Lauderdale and land in the city of Santa Clara in central Cuba. As more people travel to the country, there is one problem that's becoming more obvious. There aren't enough hotel rooms in Cuba.
Plenty of Cubans are willing to jump in and rent out rooms in their homes. And this is one of the ways the Cuban economy is opening up. Citizens are running a business and keeping the profits. Deepa Fernandes reports from Havana. This is not without complications.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to La Habana.
DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: When I was heading to Cuba in June, I could not get a hotel room in Old Havana for more than one night.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: For your information, the local time...
FERNANDES: But a quick Airbnb search threw up many options. I found the casa of Jorge Guzman.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
JORGE GUZMAN: Come in.
FERNANDES: Guzman has been renting rooms in his family home for two years.
FERNANDES: Sorry. We just spilled.
In Cuban lingo, it's known as casas particulares.
GUZMAN: Ah, OK, OK, moment - a moment.
FERNANDES: Yeah, sorry, so sorry.
Guzman has three rooms to rent in his house. The family charges 40 cuc, which is about $45 per room per night. That's pretty big money by Cuban standards. Many Cuban professionals working for the government will earn in a whole month what Guzman charges per night for just one room.
GUZMAN: (Through interpreter) I have a really big family. And we all live off the income from this small business.
FERNANDES: And Guzman says if you choose to stay in someone's house, the casa particular model is different from, say Airbnb, in which you probably won't ever see the person from whom you're renting.
GUZMAN: (Through interpreter) In Cuba, you interact with the owners a lot. You talk with them, see their problems, talk about daily life. Like, how was the market? What do they think of the schools? The current situation - you talk about everything.
FERNANDES: It's kind of an immersive tourism, an up-close look into Cuban life.
FERNANDES: Hilda Torres was an early adopter of the casa particular business. She has one room in her home that she rents. For about $30 a night, you also get a home-cooked breakfast and dinner every day.
HILDA TORRES: Plantains in temptation, which is, you don't fry them but just make them golden.
FERNANDES: Torres, a now-retired English professor from the University of Havana, says, while she's happy for the extra income, she sees a class divide growing in Cuban society as the officially socialist nation loosens state control.
TORRES: The people who own restaurants or the people who rent houses or apartments - they're getting much more income than those who live on a government salary.
FERNANDES: It's something she's not super comfortable with.
TORRES: We are - we feel we're indebted because we were made by the revolution.
FERNANDES: So she's giving back by training women on her own block...
TORRES: This is a...
FERNANDES: ...Her neighbors and friends...
TORRES: ...Kind of crash course - a very short course - for landladies and landlords.
FERNANDES: ...On the ins and outs of renting to foreigners and some basic English.
TORRES: All right. So begin your questions. You begin.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Do you have a passport?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yes, I have a passport.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: What's your passport number?
FERNANDES: When tourists arrive in their homes to stay, Cuban hosts must immediately ask for their passport and call in to a local immigration office to register them.
TORRES: For registration, what's your name? What's your address? Give me your passport. This is important. Sign here, please, for the registration book. All these are things that you need, right?
FERNANDES: It's a detail that can get lost in the initial welcome and settling in of a tourist. But Torres wants to make sure her neighbors follow proper protocols and have enough English to quickly nip in the bud strange tourist behaviors, like, well, that time someone peed in her sister's sink.
TORRES: My sister doesn't speak English. But she's very communicative. And there was a guy in the toilet - a basin. (Speaking Spanish). And she said, this here - no.
TORRES: And he understood. He understood. But if you know a few words, a few phrases, use them.
FERNANDES: For older women, learning a new language is hard enough. But for many Cubans, it's also learning some of capitalism's basic principles of doing business, which may be the bigger challenge. For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.