March 21 (Reuters) - Priceline Group has agreed with Cuba to make Cuban hotel rooms available to U.S. customers via subsidiary Booking.com, becoming the first U.S. online travel agency to strike a deal with the island state, a Booking.com executive said.
The deal comes on the first full day of U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba and on the heels of U.S. hotel firm Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide's agreement with the Cuban government to manage and market three Havana hotel properties.
Booking.com would allow Americans traveling to Cuba to reserve and pay for rooms at a number of Cuban and foreign hotels, starting in several weeks, Booking.com Americas Managing Director Todd Dunlap told Reuters in an interview.
Americans previously had to reserve Cuban hotels principally through travel agencies or tour groups.
Booking.com would operate initially in Cuba only in Havana, Dunlap said. It planned to work with foreign firms already on the island, including France's Accor and Spanish chains Meliá Hotels International SA and NH Hotel Group SA. It was also working on deals with state-run Cuban chains.
The only major American lodging booking service currently available to Americans traveling to Cuba is online home-rental marketplace Airbnb, which began operating in Cuba in April last year.
Priceline began working on bringing its services to Cuba shortly after President Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with the island on December 17, 2014.
Cuban tourism infrastructure has seen significant strain since U.S. relations to the island warmed. Prices have surged for the island's 63,000 hotel rooms, many of which are booked solid months in advance. Cuba received a record 3.52 million visitors last year, up 17.4 percent from 2014. American visits rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans.
Tourism to Cuba is still technically illegal under the U.S. trade embargo. U.S. travelers to the island are required to do so under "general licenses" which permit travel for religion, family visits, cultural exchange, sports, and other purposes approved by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Control. On March 17 OFAC said it would allow individual people-to-people educational exchanges, as well.
Booking.com would ask travelers to certify that they fit one of the Treasury's approved travel categories, but would not verify their status, Dunlap said. The company would keep travelers' information on file for five years after their travel, should officials choose to check. (Additional reporting by Mike Stone in New York, editing by Peter Henderson and Stephen Coates)