But some barriers remain. Only four percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, the platform by which Airbnb connects travelers and hosts. Users of the service also rely on the Internet to pay their hosts online; if there's no Internet, that's a big problem for Airbnb's prospects.
To circumvent the issue, Airbnb is drawing on a technique millions of people around the world use every day. It's tapped a company that specializes in sending remittances back to developing countries. Per Bloomberg:
Airbnb had to find local intermediaries to help manage listings and connect hosts with customers. That led to the problem of paying hosts, most of whom asked for cash. … So Airbnb had to contract a licensed money remitter to make payments on its behalf. The company chose Florida-based VaCuba, which specializes in sending cash and gifts to families in Cuba. “What Airbnb has done is quite creative,” says Collin Laverty, founder of Cuba Educational Travel, which organizes U.S. exchange programs. “ ‘Cuba’ is really a dirty word in the banking world.”
Airbnb's critics point out that this arrangement mostly benefits Airbnb, since the company's entry into Cuba does little to expand the number of Cubans who actually have the Internet. Still, an influx of U.S. money could encourage Havana to invest more in broadband infrastructure.
Airbnb isn't the first Internet business to head to Cuba. Netflix has also announced plans to expand there. As I wrote then, increased demand for online services typically leads to more capacity, which leads to more services, and on and on. So even if Airbnb doesn't singlehandedly raise the Internet penetration rate in Cuba, its arrival could put added pressure on the government to grow the Web.