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By Mimi Dwyer
NEW YORK, 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's government, 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 on Saturday.
Americans previously had to reserve Cuban hotels principally through travel agencies or tour groups.
Booking.com would operate initially in Havana, Dunlap said. It planned to work with foreign companies already in Cuba, 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 in Cuba is online home-rental marketplace Airbnb.
Priceline Group began working on bringing its services to Cuba shortly after President Obama's Dec. 17, 2014 announcement of a thaw in relations with Cuba. The two countries restored diplomatic relations last year.
Priceline said it would route payments through a European partner but declined to specify which.
The improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations has fueled a price surge for the island's 63,000 hotel rooms, many 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.
General tourism by Americans to Cuba is still barred under the U.S. trade embargo. But U.S. travelers may visit the island under "general licenses" that 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 people to travel individually, rather than in organized groups, so long as their trips fell under the authorized categories.
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 should officials choose to check. (Additional reporting by Mike Stone in New York, editing by Peter Henderson, Stephen Coates and W Simon)