Cuba - US embargo
A Cuban citizen walks past a mural of Julio Antonio Mella, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara Getty

US travellers will be able to book lodging in Cuba for the first time in half a century after Airbnb, the online home-rental service, is expanding to the island.

The company has been sending representatives to Cuba for three months to sign up home owners, and plans to expand steadily in coming months.

More than 1,000 properties will be available across the island, with 40% in Havana, according to the AP.

A raft of business expansions into Cuba

This is most significant US business expansion in Cuba since the declaration of detente between the two countries late in 2014, as the US trade embargo blocked such businesses from entering the Cuban market.

In January, however, the Obama administration loosened a series of restrictions on US business in an attempt to encourage the growth of the island's small private sector.

The Airbnb announcement is the latest in a series of US business moves into Cuba, including Netflix and MasterCard which have unblocked their services in Cuba for a handful of islanders who have connections fast enough to stream Netflix.

In February, New Jersey-based IDT Corp and Cuban state telecoms firm ETECSA also agreed to connect phone calls from the US directly to Cuba – typically routed through Italy or Spain.

A surge in travellers

"We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb's biggest markets in Latin America," explained Kay Kuehne, regional director for Airbnb.

"We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago," he said referring to Cuba's existing network of thousands of privately owned rooms and houses for tourists that started in the post-Soviet economic crisis of the 1990s.

Kuehne said Airbnb's plans had been welcomed by Cuban and US authorities, as Cuba has been struggling to accommodate a surge of travellers since the announcement of the warming relations between the two former enemies.

Since the US and Cuba announced a historic rapprochement in December 2014, the White House has eased travel restrictions on 12 categories of visits and the company's Cuba listing will only be available to US travellers visiting under one of those US-government approved categories of legal travel, ranging from professional research to religious activities.

For the time being, however, non-US travelers will not be able to use Airbnb.

The US is looking to open an embassy in Cuba within a few weeks.