This week, when Barack Obama visited Cuba (the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge did so in 1928) he had a number of goals: loosen trade restrictions, "normalize relations" and eventually help Cubans gain greater freedom.
Oh, and one more thing: help Cubans to achieve greater wealth through capitalism.
“Today about half a million Cubans, including some of you, are proud cuentapropistas, running your own restaurants, cafes, beauty salons, barber shops. Or working as artists, seamstresses and taxi drivers,” Obama said in a speech to Cuban entrepreneurs who have been allowed to operate small ventures outside of state-operated employment, reports USA Today.
But Obama doesn't just want Cuban business owners to succeed. Accompanying the President to Cuba are the executives of some of the most valuable tourism companies in the U.S.
The president hailed the success stories of capitalism and free-market principles, claiming that American businesses can help Cuba grow its economy.
“U.S. business leaders are not interested in seeing Cuba fail,” he said according to the Washington Post. “We are interested in seeing Cuba succeed.”
Here are some of the companies that have wasted no time getting their foot in the door as trade relationships with Cuba are starting to be renewed.
Starwood Hotels & Resorts
On Saturday, the hospitality company signed deals in Cuba to manage and operate three prestigious Havana hotels, including the famous Hotel Inglaterra.
This will be the first time an American company has managed property in Cuba since 1959. Starwood is known for its brands like Sheraton and Four Points.
According to the Washington Post, Starwood has overcome one of its greatest obstacles by receiving approval from the United States Treasury Department to conduct business in Cuba.
"We know how to do business in the area," Jorge Giannattasio, Starwood’s senior vice president and chief of Latin America Operations, told USA Today about being the first company to have a deal signed. "When no one thought it was possible, we made the right argument and we got the license.”
Starwood will not own the hotel property, as all hotels in Cuba are owned by the state, but they will have the freedom to manage, hire employees and make a profit.
Carnival Cruise Line got its approval to sail to Cuba from the Treasury Department back in July. The company started booking cruises and selling tickets with one hurdle yet to cross: permission from the Cuban government.
According to USA Today, travel agents have been apprehensive about booking Carnival's cruises while knowing of this contingency.
On Monday, however, Carnival announced that the Cuban Government had granted their approval and Carnival would set sail from the U.S. to Cuba in May for the first time in over 50 years.
“Today, we made history,” Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said in a conference call Monday. “I want to thank the U.S. and the relevant Cuba personnel that we’ve been working with to have this historic opportunity.”
According to Fortune, Carnival's cruise will stop in three Cuban ports of call: Havana, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba.
The Priceline subsidiary Booking.com will be the first U.S. online travel agency to service Cuba after the company struck a deal with the Cuban government on Monday.
There are few hotel rooms in Cuba—only 63,000 in the whole country—but starting in a few weeks, American tourists will be able to reserve hotel rooms through Booking.com.
According to Reuters, travel itself to Cuba is still technically restricted under the trade embargo. In certain cases however, such as religion, family visits, cultural exchange, or sports, the U.S. Treasury permits travel. Booking.com would require travelers to indicate the permitted purpose of their travel, but won't verify their status, says Reuters.
Cuba's deal with Booking.com will make it a much easier destination for American tourists. Previously, rooms in Cuba could only be booked through travel agents or tour groups. According to USA Today, many Cuban hotels don't have websites. Booking.com, and the companies that follow it, will bring the ease and convenience of the web to Cuban tourism.
Airbnb started operating in Cuba in April 2015, but could only offer accommodations to authorized U.S. residents. On Sunday, however, the Obama Administration lifted those restrictions allowing the San Francisco startup to book with customers from around the world, reports Fortune.
“With help from services like Airbnb, more Americans are staying at your casas particulares and eating at your palandars, like my family did last night," Obama said in his speech to Cuban entrepreneurs Monday, noting how Airbnb connects American tourists with private lodging and restaurants.
Unlike Booking.com, Airbnb doesn't book rooms with hotels, but with individuals who wish to rent out a room or part of their home. Reporters from Business Insider rented a three-bedroom apartment for $120 per night. A Yahoo travel reporter found a room for $42 per night.
Tourists must face the reality of these Airbnb bookings in Cuba: they're run down. Buildings in Cuba have faced years of neglect and it will take time before they're in good repair. But both reports say the accommodations are livable, charming, and mostly comfortable.
Airbnb founder Brian Chesky told CBS that they already have 4,000 homes in Cuba that are being rented.
The problem with Airbnb, Booking.com, and other American innovations is that they require the Internet to function in their fulness. Just 5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet, says Fortune.
Internet access in Cuba is absurdly expensive. According to NPR, one hour of Internet use costs $2 — which doesn't sound like much until you consider that the average Cuban makes $20 per month.
“One of the things that we’ll be announcing here is that Google has a deal to start setting up more Wi-Fi access and broadband access on the island,” said President Obama in an exclusive interview with ABC on Saturday.
The details of this deal are not yet available, but will likely be revealed in the coming days.
“If we start seeing those kinds of commercial deals taking place and Cubans are benefiting from greater access to the Internet,” Obama said in his press conference according to USA Today.