Cuban casas particulares turn home into a business
Miami Herald reporter Mimi Whitefield sits on the balcony of her room at Nivia Melendez and her husband Roberto's Casa Colonial on Trinidad St. on March 29, 2012 in Santiago de Cuba. Roberto is telling Mimi about the old home. (Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald, MCT / March 29, 2012)
That would be her apartment in a wedding cake of a building where she operates a casa particular — Cuba's version of a bed and breakfast — and rents out two spacious rooms.
One thing she has learned since opening for business in 1997, when the government first allowed Cubans to rent out rooms in their homes — although they had been doing it under the table for years before that — is give the customers what they want.
At her bed-and-breakfast, you can get breakfast, of course. But for an extra charge, guests can order lunch or dinner, use her kitchen to cook their own meals or have their laundry done. She's also available to help with lost cell phones and other dilemmas.
Casa Havana, an Old Havana homerun by retired dentist Emilio Nodarse, even has a rooftop terrace bar complete with a full-time barman. Other casas provide guests with cold Bucanero and Cristal beers from the fridge or cigars — for an extra fee.
Most of the casas charge $20 to $35 a night, payable in convertible pesos (CUCs) — the currency used by foreigners. Some provide breakfast for free; others charge around $3.
In the 1990s, Cubans who wanted to earn some extra money would offer clean but generally Spartan rooms.
But when the law changed in 1997, allowing casas particulares to register as businesses, it really unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit for people like Arias.
"When the law came out, I said, 'Wow, this is for me,"' said Arias, a retired educator who has lived in her colonial-style apartment for the past 41 years. "I have learned this business by doing it ever since."
In the past year, there have been other changes that allow the casas to rent out more than two rooms, hire employees that aren't family members to help with cooking and housekeeping, and that lower the monthly per-room taxes from 200 pesos per room to 150 pesos. During slow periods, proprietors also can close down for the month and aren't responsible for taxes.
Now guests can travel from one end of the island to the other, renting rooms from Cubans all the way. Some of the casas are featured in guide books such as Lonely Planet; others show up on online booking services.
But for advance bookings, most still rely on the telephone or email exchanges, often relayed by third parties.
Matthew Sellar, a London-based research assistant, decided to take the concept one step further. At his Cubacasa site (www.cubacasa.co.uk), you can click on the desired casa and check a calendar to see which dates are available and book the accommodation on the spot.
The Edinburgh-based website was an outgrowth of Sellar's own travels in Cuba. "I didn't want to stay at a resort. If you really want to see what Cuba is like, you should stay in a casa," he said. "But I found it was relatively difficult to book a casa from abroad."
Cubacasa charges a 10 percent booking fee and then guests pay the proprietor of the casa directly when they arrive in Cuba. Sellar uses Moneybookers, a British-based online payments company rather than PayPal, to make sure neither the company nor any potential guests run afoul of the U.S. embargo against Cuba or any Cuban or U.K. laws.
Since the website went live last July, it has handled more than 150 bookings and works with about 90 casas.
Sellar said it's been challenging to try to professionalize the casa business.
Often casa owners jump on the largest booking they can get, even if it means cancelling a previous registration. They want to ensure they'll be able to pay their monthly tax to the government. But Sellar said such bookings have "traditionally been very flimsy and do not materialize."
Now, he said, casa owners know the customers he books will actually show up and he's started to concentrate on marketing and building ties with travel agents and guide books.