Sunday, February 28, 2010, Rabi ul Awwal 13, 1431 A.H  
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 Cuba's world-famous cigar festival closes in Havana
 Updated at: 1452 PST,  Sunday, February 28, 2010
Cuba HAVANA: Hundreds of wealthy merchants and cigar aficionados from all parts of the world gathered in Havana this week to bid high stakes for humidors full of premium cigars.

Cuba's annual Habanos festival ended on Friday night with an auction of ornate humidors of cedar and mahogany stacked with hand-rolled stogies that raised 800,000 euros ($1.09 million dollars).

Habanos S.A. executives this month said cigar sales fell 8 percent to $360 million in 2009, so they have created the Julieta, a smaller, milder version of the Romeo y Julieta cigar, aimed specifically at female smokers. Women now make up only 5 to 10 percent of customers for Habanos.

But even with the creation of the Julieta, Garcia said Habanos has only modest hopes for 2010 sales, due largely to a weak economy in Spain, the biggest market for Cuban cigars.

The flavor of premium tobacco relies on the soil and climate in which it is grown. The western province of Pinar Del Rio, famous for its sunny and humid weather, is one of the best regions in the communist island for making top quality stogies.

Leida Alvarez, director of Cuba's tobacco leaf harvesting company, said the tobacco industry expected higher earnings this year.

"We are having a good season (for tobacco) with perfect farmwork cultures. It (harvest) has no plagues, the tobacco is very healthy, very vigorous and we hope to achieve larger earnings (this year)," she said.

Habanos -- which produces other well-known brands such as Cohiba, Monte Cristo, Trinidad and Partagas -- has about 71 percent of the sales in its markets, according to its own figures.

Cigar factory worker, Maria del Carmen Vasquez, said there is a great demand for people like her in the Habanos factories.

"This (working with tobacco) is the best because this country requires a lot of work effort (for tobacco) of high quality," she said.

The best-sold humidor in the lavish gala dinner auction was that of the new Cohiba Beike cigar - auctioned at 400,000 euros ($681,000 dollars).

Vice-President of Habanos S.A., Oscar Basulto, said the new Cohiba Beike was the best premium cigar on the market.

"We have launched some new cigar bands (in the festival) like the Cohiba Beike, in which we have great trust, since it is the best among all first-class tobacco available on the market at this time," he said.

The U.S. market, the largest in the world with 230 to 250 million cigars smoked annually, is off limits to Habanos due to the U.S. trade embargo imposed against Cuba since 1962.
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