Havana’s sprawling Palacio de Convenciones normally plays host to Communist Party congresses. This week it has been converted into an exclusive emporium.
- Three Cohiba cigars
The walls are draped in huge adverts for Cuba’s most luxurious export: hand-rolled Habanos cigars. Milling around the gleaming display stands below are hundreds of visitors to the island’s annual international cigar festival.
This year’s event commemorates 520 years since Christopher Columbus first discovered tobacco here and introduced it to Europe.
Western Europe is still the key market for the cigars Cuba later learned to fashion from its leaves. But the economic crisis there and the spread of anti-smoking laws are creating changes.
Distributor Habanos opened the festival by announcing a 9% increase in sales in 2011.
The firm says emerging markets like China are now making up for others in decline.
“When you talk about luxury products, that upturn is driven now by China. It’s booming,” says Habanos Development Vice-President Javier Terres.
Sales to China, including Hong Kong and Macau, rose by 39% last year, even as sales to Habanos’ biggest buyer, Spain, plunged 20%.
“The Chinese are quite heavy smokers and much more interested in luxury products. The best-seller there is the Cohiba, our most expensive cigar,” Javier Terres explains.
So among the international crowds touring Cuba’s tobacco fields and its factories this week are Chinese traders, cigar-tourists and aficionados. There is also a busload of Russians.
“There’s no smoking ban in Russia. You can still smoke in bars, clubs and restaurants there,” points out Riad Bou Karam, who runs the Casa de Habanos outlet in Moscow, where he says sales are strong.
Unlike the initial post-Soviet years when expensive but vulgar was the vogue, Russians say they are now seeking out quality first and foremost.
For that, Cuban cigars have long been hailed as the best you can get.