As the US lifts its decades-old travel and trade restrictions on the Communist-led island, American hotel chains and booking services are jostling for a stake in the Carribean island's hospitality market.
When President Barack Obama touched down in Havana over the weekend, his visit marked a new chapter for Americans eager to visit an island that has been off-limits since the 1959 revolution.
On Saturday, for instance, the US hotel chain Starwood became the first such company to sign hotel deals in Cuba since guerillas led by Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed government.
The Priceline Group, via its subsidary Booking.com, has also said it will make Cuban hotel rooms available to US customers online. The popular home-rental marketplace Airbnb has been operating in Cuba since last April.
Starwood announced that it had signed three deals to enter the Cuban market upon receiving authorization from the US Treasury Department. The move was expected to pave the way for more enterprises from the US to return to the Cuban travel market.
"With Cuba's rich history, natural beauty and strong culture, there is no question the entire US hospitality industry has watched Cuba with great interest," said Starwood´s Chief Executive Thomas Mangas.
In a bid to move quickly, Starwood will renovate three existing hotel properties, as opposed to building from the ground up. Under the deal, Cuba's well-known Hotel Inglaterra, Hotel Quinta Avenida and Hotel Santa Isabel will become part of Starwood's luxury hotel collection.
The hotel chain is set to open two hotels in the capital, Havana, later this year and has signed a letter of intent for a third.
Although Obama has eased restrictions on US citizens visiting the Caribbean island, the lifting of the decades-old trade embargo can only be decided by a Republican-dominated Congress, which does not back such a move.
hch/cjc (AP, Reuters)