Mi casa es su casa: Cubans opening up homes to accommodate U.S. tourists

By: Rong Zeng

HAVANA – Now that the travel ban is essentially lifted, Cuba is open for business for Americans. If you’re planning a trip to the Caribbean island – which had been off limits to U.S. citizens for the past 50 years – and looking for an authentic experience, consider staying in a “casa particular.”

A casa particular, which means “private house” in Spanish, is like a bed and breakfast that Cubans run out of their home and tend to cost about $30 or so a night. And, with a horde of new American tourists expected and not enough hotel rooms to accommodate them, they may be your only option.

The casas can be booked online, through websites such as AirBnB.com. But not all are listed online, since Internet access is scarce in Cuba. Such rooms can be booked the old fashioned way: find a house marked with small sign on its front door depicting two blue triangles against a white background. Just be sure to bring cash, since U.S. credit cards still don't work in Cuba.

“It was a great opportunity for me to meet the friendly local owners and try traditional Cuban food,” said Sam Cannistraci, who visited Cuba in January as part of a study abroad class with Adelphi University.

The 21-year-old New Yorker stayed in a Havana casa, which included multiple bright and clean bedrooms with air conditioning and their own showers. In addition, she got a breakfast packed with more fresh, tropical fruit than hotel guests would get at any continental breakfast in the United States.

“Our host are very nice, and prepared our meal on time. And let us dine separately and freely,” said Cannistraci, adding that her hosts offered to do her laundry.

While Cannistraci’s experience was typical, casa accommodations can vary, according to Havana-based tour guide Ivan Gomez Trujillo. Some casas provide additional perks, such as Cuban cigars – but usually for a price. Dinner may also be an option. While most casas rent out rooms, entire apartments and villas are also available. The same rooms are also available to Cubans, who travel around the country, but at a steeply discounted price.

In some ways, the casa particulares are a microcosm for the dramatic economic changes underway in Cuba. After decades of having a tightly-controlled, state-run economy, the government is beginning to allow private enterprises, such as the casas. Granted, the casas are heavily regulated and, in addition to purchasing a license to operate, owners must share a portion of their revenues with the state. Still, it’s progress in this communist country which hasn’t changed much since American companies left following Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution.

“I consider this measure would be a big opportunity for people who are retired and survive with little income,” said Eduardo Gonzalez, a 69-year-old retired computer specialist who’s been operating a casa particular out of his Havana apartment for one year. “Making money is the most initial motivation for me to start the casa particular business. Moreover, getting to know more people who share different backgrounds is an interesting thing for me.”

Now that Americans may freely travel to Cuba, Gonzalez is anticipating a boom in bookings. “Since the relation between United States and Cuba is getting better, I would be able to receive more tourists in my home,” he said.

The casas play an increasingly critical role in Cuba’s tourism industry, said University of Havana economics professor Juan Triana because Cuba currently lacks sufficient hotel rooms to accommodate the millions of American tourists now expected to visit Cuba annually.

Although the casa operators are willing, not all are ready for the American influx.

“I have very good experience with most tourists, but, it is not in my ability to accommodate the tourists to keep them satisfied,” said Hercedes Virelle Hilan, a 43-year-old Havana resident began operating her casa five years ago and has received tourists from all over the world.

Like many Cubans operating casas, she lacks the basic amenities, such as toiletries, that Americans are accustomed to when staying in hotels. Moreover, just putting food on the table for meals can be an issue since the government rations portions to citizens. Consequently, Hilan said she can’t always provide the dining experience Americans might expect.

Triana empathizes with the casa owners.

“Right now, we simply don’t have enough French fries for all the Americans who want to come here,” he said.