World’s biggest cigar festival opens in Havana

Telegraph: Billed as the biggest international event of its kind, the festival, now in its thirteenth year, is a showcase for the Communist island’s best known and most iconic export. It also provides a rare splash of decadence in an otherwise impoverished no-frills society.

Sales of Cuban cigars dropped sharply in 2008 and 2009 as the global financial crisis and a series of smoking bans around the world began to bite, sapping demand for a product once conspicuously consumed by Left-wing revolutionaries like of Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara, as well as the world’s rich and famous.

But 2010 marked a return to form with sales rebounding thanks to a growing appetite for the pungent luxury item from consumers in China and the Middle East.

“We are moderately satisfied,” Javier Terres, vice-president of Habanos SA, the exclusive seller of all brands of handmade Cuban cigars around the world, said with understatement at the festival’s opening. Cigar sales generated the equivalent of £230 million last year, he added, a vital source of hard currency for a government that still regards capitalism as a dirty word.

The festival caters both to connoisseurs and the merely curious, offering black-tie galas, visits to tobacco plantations, blind cigar tasting events and seminars on the art of making and savouring the perfect cigar. People who have gone in the past say the air is always pleasantly thick with the smell of famous brands such as Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo and Robaina.

But with a ticket providing access to the full weekly programme costing the equivalent of £884, it is not an event for ordinary Cubans who scrape by on average annual salaries of around £150.

However, cigars are popular among Cubans, and cheap unbranded cigars can be bought by locals for the equivalent of about 3p each.

Despite the fact that the sale of Cuban cigars in the United States remains banned due to a 48-year-old trade embargo, big-name Hollywood stars have graced the festival with their presence in the past.

But this year’s festival is notably star-free. Fidel Castro, who gave up smoking cigars himself in 1986 for health reasons, is not expected to make an appearance. Unfortunately for the organisers, his brother Raul, the current President, is a non-smoker too and will also be staying away.

The festival will wrap up on Friday with a traditional auction of handmade cigar humidors with the proceeds going to Cuba’s famously free universal health system.

Although Cuba’s cigar industry is cautiously optimistic about the future, officials are worried by developments in their biggest market: Spain. In the grip of a financial crisis, Spanish cigar smokers are cutting back on Cuban cigars to save money, while a recently introduced ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces has also hit sales.


About Particular Cuba
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