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Expedia begins offering online booking for hotels in Cuba

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US online travel services company Expedia said on Tuesday it had started offering online booking for hotels in Communist-run Cuba, hoping to capitalise on a boom in tourism to the Caribbean island.

[HAVANA] US online travel services company Expedia said on Tuesday it had started offering online booking for hotels in Communist-run Cuba, hoping to capitalise on a boom in tourism to the Caribbean island.

Expedia joins a dozen US airlines and cruise operators that have already ventured into the Cuban market since the United States announced a detente with its former Cold War foe in 2014 and eased travel and trade restrictions.

"I see a lot of potential. We are talking about the largest country in the Caribbean with significant hotel expansion plans," Veronica Vega, Expedia area manager for Caribbean, said in an interview.

The number of visitors to Cuba rose 13 per cent to a record 4 million in 2016, driven by a 74 per cent jump in US travellers. A survey recently showed the number of American visitors alone could multiply sevenfold to two million by 2025.

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Expedia's move comes as US President Donald Trump's administration conducts a full review of US policy toward Cuba. During his campaign, Mr Trump had threatened to roll back the normalisation of relations.

That does not seem to have dampened US interest in the Cuban market. Analysts and corporate executives said it was hard to imagine Mr Trump, a former businessman, taking measures that would harm US companies already in Cuba.

US law still bans general tourism to Cuba, but former President Barack Obama's administration allowed Americans to travel more easily to Cuba for educational, cultural and other authorised purposes without having to go on organised group tours.

Expedia said Americans would simply have to certify that their trips fell under one of the 12 categories of authorised travel.

"We are very excited about being able to facilitate travel and give people the independence to select their itinerary," said Ms Vega.

Expedia said it would offer both hotel and BnB options and that customers would be able to pay online at the time of booking.

Americans previously had to reserve Cuban hotels principally through travel agencies or tour groups.

Since 2015, American tourists have also been able to book properties in Cuba on Airbnb Inc. The online home-rental marketplace said last year the island had become its fastest growing market ever.

Expedia said that for US travellers, it was operating under a general license right for all travel service providers. For non-US travellers, it was operating under a specific license granted by the US Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in December 2016.

REUTERS

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