The evolution of the Cuban cigar

Cuban cigars, long a sign of luxury, are increasing their sales even as the global economy struggles. At a convention in Cuba, cigar-makers show how they are adapting to the times.

Havana's sprawling Palacio de Convenciones normally plays host to Communist Party congresses. This week it has been converted into an exclusive emporium.

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.

International appeal

Distributor Habanos opened the festival byannouncing a 9% increase in salesin 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 moreinterested 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.

'Black market thing'

The island supplies 80% of the world's premium cigar market, excluding the US, which bans Cuban imports as part of a trade embargo originally intended to topple this communist regime.

No wonder the festival organisers were so pleased to welcome American actor Jim Belushi as their celebrity guest. A cigar fan, he says Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced him to a Montecristo No 2 while they were between shots on the set of Red Heat.

Image caption Readers are hired to read to workers as they roll the cigars

"Lots of Americans are getting access [to Cuban cigars], don't kid yourself. You can find them!" he told the BBC, lighting up as he spoke.

"But the people making the money should be Cuba and the US.

"Now it's a black market thing."

It is a couple of hours' drive west of Havana to the plantations of Pinar del Rio, the heart of Cuba's tobacco industry.

Potholed roads are flanked by fields full of the tall green plant; all around are towering barns built out of palm-tree planks and full of pungent tobacco leaves strung together and hung up high to dry.

The country's tobacco farmers are better-off than many on this island, earning several thousand dollars for the annual harvest of such a valuable crop. By contrast most Cubans still work for the state, earning under $20 a month.

"We live quite well. I can't complain," says farmer Yohanny Alonso, who works his land alongside his parents and wife. "If you care for tobacco lovingly, it will always bring you results."

Cigar competition

From the farms, the dried tobacco leaves are taken for processing at state-owned factories in Havana.

There,lines of workers at wooden deskshand-roll the ultimate bourgeois status symbol beneath larger-than-life portraits of their country's revolutionary icons.

A cigar-roller, or torcedor, can take nine months tomaster their craftwith the meticulous attention to detail demanded of them. Staff are paid extra, according to quality.

This week, the amateurs have been able to have a go, taking rolling lessons from the experts.

The festival is also the platform for Cuba to introduce new lines.

Image caption A worker presides over completed cigars

This year there is another, shorter, cigar: designed to cope with anti-smoking laws, it burns for just 20 minutes. It is more manageable in countries where anti-tobacco laws mean leaving restaurants and bars for a smoke.

Also on display are the latest attempts to combat the trade in fake cigars, including high-tech labels with tracker numbers and invisible holograms.

"A side-effect of the strict regulations has been an increase in illicit trade," explains Roberto Funari, marketing director of Imperial Tobacco, which owns 50% of Habanos.

He says the economic crisis also appears to have given the counterfeit market a boost, pushing it as high as 20% in some countries.

Above all though, this event is a gathering of passionate enthusiasts; men and women revelling in hundreds of varieties of fat cigars and waxing lyrical about their quality even as they puff.

The festival ends with the glitziest night on Cuba's social calendar: a gala dinner where tickets cost over $500 each, and guests bid hundreds of thousands more at an auction of humidors.

The profits from the cigar sales are donated to Cuba's health service.

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