By Sarah Marsh
HAVANA (Reuters) - U.S. online travel services company Expedia said on Tuesday it had started offering online booking for hotels in Communist-run Cuba, hoping to capitalize on a boom in tourism to the Caribbean island.
Expedia joins a dozen U.S. 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 percent to a record 4 million in 2016, driven by a 74 percent jump in U.S. travelers. A survey recently showed the number of American visitors alone could multiply sevenfold to 2 million by 2025.
Expedia's move comes as U.S. President Donald Trump's administration conducts a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba. During his campaign, Trump had threatened to roll back the normalization of relations.
That does not seem to have dampened U.S. interest in the Cuban market. Analysts and corporate executives said it was hard to imagine Trump, a former businessman, taking measures that would harm U.S. companies already in Cuba.
U.S. 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 authorized purposes without having to go on organized group tours.
Expedia said Americans would simply have to certify that their trips fell under one of the 12 categories of authorized travel.
"We are very excited about being able to facilitate travel and give people the independence to select their itinerary," said 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 U.S. travelers, it was operating under a general license right for all travel service providers. For non-U.S. travelers, it was operating under a specific license granted by the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control in December 2016.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Peter Cooney)