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The Havana Cigar Festival with Sir Terence Conran

The Havana Cigar Festival with Sir Terence Conran

The visitors, more likely to be socialites than socialists, come every year to rub shoulders with like-minded aficionados. And smoke, almost continuously. With many countries around the world now shunning smokers, Cuba, which has not enforced its own anti-smoking legislation, has become something of a haven.

“We have been driven to special corners of the world,” says Hong Kong based cigar distributor David Tang. “Places where people still understand that smoking is not a sin.”

Visitors to the festival spend much of the week touring the factories where the objects of their desires are rolled. For British designer and restaurateur Sir Terence Conran, coming to Cuba for the first time having smoked Cuban cigars almost every day for the last 43 of his 75 years, is like a pilgrimage. In the vast rolling room of H. Upmann, the air thick with the aroma of tobacco leaf, he recalls his first cigar.

“We opened the Habitat store in May 1964, and someone suggested that the best way to celebrate was with a Montecristo cigar.”

I ask him if he has ever considered giving up.

“No,” is his brusque reply. “Luckily I have a very sensible doctor who smokes cigars himself.”

The festival is of course not just about smoking cigars. It has a serious business side. Behind closed doors, in the factories’ tasting rooms, retailers are thinking of ways to defend their livelihoods against anti-smoking legislation. They know that they will probably end up selling fewer cigars. One strategy is to go more upmarket.

The week ends with an extravagant $500 a head final dinner, which this year was held in the cavernous ExpoCuba, near Havana’s Parque Lenin. Glancing around the several guests, it seemed quite clear that there are plenty of cigar smokers with plenty of money around the world. The dinner ends with an auction of hand-crafted humidors. The bids (which go towards Cuban health care) soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This does not look like a business or a habit that is dying out.


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