Thursday 29 September 2016

Tourism and tech companies land in Cuba on Obama's coat-tails

Mimi Dwyer and Susan Heavey

Published 22/03/2016 | 02:30

President Barack Obama waves upon arrival to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016.(AP Photo/Fernando Medina)
President Barack Obama waves upon arrival to Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016.(AP Photo/Fernando Medina)
Local Cubans watch from their homes as the motorcade of U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in a section of Old Havana, Sunday, March 20. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. President Barack Obama walks with first lady Michelle Obama, who is holding the arm of her mother Marian Robinson, during a walking tour of Old Havana, Cuba, Sunday, March 20, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Booking.com, Starwood Hotels and Google are among the US companies leading a push into Cuba, as President Obama visits the Communist state.

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Priceline Group has agreed to make Cuban hotel rooms available to US customers using its subsidiary Booking.com, becoming the first US online travel agency to strike a deal with the island state, a Booking.com executive said.

The deal came on the first full day of Barack Obama's visit to Cuba and on the heels of US hotel firm Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's agreement with the Cuban government to manage and market three Havana hotel properties.

The Cuban economy is dominated by the state and government-linked agencies.

President Barack Obama was received by Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana yesterday at the start of historic talks where the US leader will press his counterpart for economic and democratic reforms while hearing complaints about US sanctions.

Obama arrived in Cuba on Sunday on a trip that comes 15 months after he and Castro agreed to end five decades of Cold War-era animosity and work to normalise relations.

Click to view full size graphic
Click to view full size graphic

On the first full day of his visit yesterday, he went to the heart of Cuba's communist system, laying a wreath in Revolution Square at the memorial to independence hero Jose Marti.

Alphabet's Google is poised to expand internet access in Cuba, President Obama told America's ABC News.

"One of the things that we'll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more wifi and broadband access on the island," Obama said in the interview that aired yesterday.

Booking.com said it would allow Americans travelling to Cuba to reserve and pay for rooms at a number of Cuban and foreign hotels, starting within weeks, the company's Americas managing director, Todd Dunlap, told Reuters in an interview. Americans previously had to reserve Cuban hotels principally through travel agencies or tour groups.

Booking.com would operate initially only in Havana, Dunlap said.

It planned to work with foreign firms already on the island, including France's Accor and Spanish chains Meliá Hotels International and NH Hotel Group.

It was also working on deals with state-run Cuban chains.

The only major American lodging booking service currently available to Americans travelling to Cuba is online home-rental marketplace Airbnb, which began operating in Cuba in April last year.

Priceline began working on bringing its services to Cuba shortly after President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with the island on December 17, 2014.

Cuban tourism infrastructure has seen significant strain since US relations to the island warmed. Prices have surged for the island's 63,000 hotel rooms, many of which are booked solid months in advance. Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4pc from 2014. American visits rose 77pc to 161,000, not counting Cuban-Americans.

American tourism to Cuba is still technically illegal under the US trade embargo.

US travellers to the island are required to do so under "general licences" which permit travel for religion, family visits, cultural exchange, sports, and other purposes approved by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control. (Reuters)

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