DAt the start of their digital accommodation service, Maren Benens and Klaas Sennekool had imagined a little differently. Last March there was to be a celebration with her business partners on site, the flights to Havana had long been booked, also for a photographer and a social media officer.
But then the virus intervened and made long-distance travel impossible for the time being. “Exactly on the day we wanted to take off, Cuba announced that it would close its borders,” says Klaas Sennekool. “The airline offered us to take us back on the same day, but we did not seriously consider it.”
The Cologne lawyer couple has founded a booking platform for private accommodation on the Antilles island. The site is called cuba-vida.de and is now active. So far, 29 houses with a total of 70 rooms are on offer, not just in Havana, but in a total of seven cities and regions, including Cienfuegos, Mantanzas and Trinidad. The price range for an overnight stay is between 40 and 50 euros per room.
The accommodations are mostly simple but lovingly furnished. No two rooms are the same. With one exception, the couple knows each host personally. Your offer should make the accommodation service more transparent and reliable – not only for the guests, but also for the hosts.
Private accommodation is a thriving business
Travel to Cuba is now possible again, also for tourist purposes (see below). The clammy socialist island state is dependent on foreign currency, tourism is one of its main sources of income.
For visitors whose idea of a successful vacation is to sit on the beach with a mojito in hand, there are hotel complexes that are largely isolated from island life. Business with private hostels, so-called casas particulares, whose operators require a state license, is also flourishing.
Many guests prefer such private casas because they appreciate the direct contact with the local families, who are considered to be particularly hospitable – and because they ensure that their money reaches the local people directly. The accommodations are often magnificent villas or townhouses from a time when Cuba was still the Mallorca of the Americans. Sometimes there are even the bulky old US fridges from the 1950s in the kitchens.
Vacationers do not always get the booked room
Cuba Vida is not the only international broker of private accommodation in Cuba. Rooms can also be booked via platforms such as Booking.com or TripAdvisor, and smaller agencies are also busy on the market.
The operation of a casa is associated with strict conditions for the owners, but you don’t always get what you order there. The most popular and best-rated casas are sometimes overbooked, and arriving guests are then moved to other accommodations in the vicinity.
They often have no choice but to accept the alternative because they fear that they will not find a replacement. In other cases the rooms are in a much worse condition than the pictures on the Internet suggested.
Through the personal proximity to the landlords, Cuba Vida wants to set clear standards and increase planning security. “We guarantee our customers that they will get exactly the room they saw and booked on our site,” says Klaas Sennekool, whose company is financed through agency fees.
Cuba Vida guarantees the landlord more security
On the other hand, the landlords of Casas particulares also have to deal with imponderables. When booking, no deposit is usually required, the invoice is paid on site. As a result, many guests simply do not show up because they have changed their plans at short notice.
For the landlord, in the worst case, this is associated with a total failure if they can no longer get rid of the reserved room in a hurry. “Reliable casa owners are punished by this,” says Sennekool. At Cuba Vida, a cancellation fee offers landlords a certain amount of financial security.
However, customers have to accept that their inquiries are not processed in real time. Since most landlords do not have internet access, a direct booking is hardly possible.
Instead, the request is forwarded to Ottoniel López Magariño, a local manager who calls the casas or drives over in person. This can take up to 72 hours. “Otto has his own system here,” says Maren Benens. “At first we were a little surprised about his mess of papers, but he is well organized.”
Deep attachment to Cuba
After graduating from university, the couple traveled to Cuba for the first time. That was ten years ago, and the island has not let go of them since. During their many visits, they have always found accommodation in Casas particulares.
A deep connection to the tropical island and its inhabitants has developed. “We have been around the world a lot,” says Sennekool. “But nowhere do we feel as at home as in Cuba.”
However, the two are far from romanticizing the political situation in the country. Oppositionists have to expect reprisals. “Cuba is a dictatorship, there is nothing to gloss over,” says Sennekool. “We believe our initiative will help boost the private sector.”
But this also requires patience, especially since the demands of European tourists are often not immediately apparent to the landlords on site. “Some of our partners didn’t understand why they should take photos of their rooms,” says Benens. “You have never been a tourist yourself because you cannot leave your country.”
The flights to the island are already booked
The signs for greater dynamism in the private sector are currently not unfavorable. A currency reform, which came into force on January 1, is intended to stimulate the economy – even if US dollars are still traded on the black market.
In addition, Cuba has lowered the barriers to investment from abroad. A majority stake by the state is no longer required for tourism projects. This should also attract small and medium-sized companies.
The Cologne couple is hoping that their offer will be accepted by Germans who love to travel. The number of rooms available on Cuba Vida will gradually increase. In February, the two want to travel to Cuba again and look for further partners. The flights are already booked.
Tips and information
Getting there: Currently, for example, with Condor to Varadero, with Iberia via Madrid or with Air France via Paris to Havana.
Corona rules: According to the Robert Koch Institute, Cuba is not a risk area, and there is no travel warning from the German Foreign Office. Entrants must present a negative PCR test from their home country (not older than 72 hours upon arrival). After landing in Cuba, another PCR test is mandatory at the airport.
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