It’s no news that U.S. film and sports stars and even politicians together with businesspeople and tourists are arriving in Cuba to delight in the Havana Cigar Festival, or for furtive business negotiations. Neither is this the first time that the Habanos S.A. Corporation, the Cuban-European firm that is the leading international cigar exporter, calculates the increase in sales when the economic blockade that prevents the entry into the world’s largest market disappears.
There were people from the United States among the 1,650 persons from 60 countries who participated during the last week of February in the 17th edition of the world meeting of producers, exporters and cigar houses. They came to be present for the launching of new vitolas of the Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta brands, or simply to taste, in the land of origin, the most world famous hand-rolled cigars of the Premium category, to which until now they only had clandestine access.
“This is the first time we have been able to buy them legally. Because, many like I who have come several times were already buying them under the table,” U.S. tourist Patricia Lofman said to news agencies.
After the U.S. government expressed its willingness to discuss the reestablishment of civilised relations with Cuba, in January President Barack Obama authorised tourists from his country to return to the United States with a maximum 100 dollars’ worth of Cuban cigars and rum in their luggage.
According to another inveterate cigar smoker, Patrick Lagreid, who writes about this cult, this is a small step, though he is not satisfied with it.
The Gala Supper, the Grand Auction of Humidors, the smokers’ competition for the longest ash and other numerous contests organised during the Festival, were attended by media celebrities like models Paris Hilton, from the United States, and Naomi Campbell, from the U.K., and actor Kabor Bedi from India. They came to swell the list of other famous Hollywood personalities present at previous festivals, like Danny Glover, Jeremy Irons, Matt Dillon, Whoopi Goldberg, Michael Douglas, Sean Penn, Jack Nicholson and Steven Spielberg and the half way figure between body building, cinema and politics, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The high international attendance granted distinction to the traditional Humidor Auction, which this time sold six unique lots of the Cohíba, Montecristo, Partagás, Romeo y Julieta, Hoyo de Monterrey and U. Upmann brands, for a total of 1.7 million dollars, and to the 15th Havana Cigar Sommelier Contest, which was won by Brazilian Walter Saens Rodriguez Neto. In the cigar smokers’ competition for the longest ash in the world, Ali Alrami, from Kuwait, came out the winner.
While the Festival flowed at full smoke ahead, the executives of the Habanos S.A. Corporation revealed their calculations with their sights set on the northern market. If Washington lifts the economic blockade on Cuba, that company’s exports to the U.S. could reach “at least” 250 million dollars, Luis Fernández Maique, marketing vice president of Habanos S.A., estimated in an interview during the Festival.
Such growth would represent a leap of more than 60 per cent compared to current sales. That joint venture of the state-run Cubatabaco and of Altadis, a French-German branch of the British Imperial Tobacco, achieved sales worth 439 million dollars in 2014, one per cent below the 447 million dollars of the previous year, but easily above the total of 416 million in 2012. The export network and cigar houses can be found in 150 countries in the world.
As proof that the management of Habanos S.A. has carefully activated its calculators with sights set on the only important market to which it does not have access, Fernández Maique commented other data: “25 or 30 per cent would be in the first stage after the blockade is lifted,” he said to AFP, “but we have a 70 per cent quota in the world market in units and 80 per cent in value, and we think we could be close to that quota one day (in the United States), but that can take 10 or 15 years.”
Though he admitted the road to success in the United States would be rough, given that it is “a highly competitive and very complex market,” he said he was confident that that country’s consumers would also seek the history of brands like Montecristo, Cohíba and Romeo y Julieta. The company currently markets 27 brands of the Premium category (hand rolled).
As an opportune omen, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favour of Cubatabaco, when declining to interfere in a long legal battle with a U.S. company, General Cigar, determined on pirating the use of the Cohíba brand. The Court of Appeals of the Federal Circuit last June had ruled in favour of the Cuban company. (2015)
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