Cuba says cigar sales rose to $416 million in 2012, despite economic crisis in southern Europe

HAVANA – Cuban cigar sales rose last year despite the ongoing economic crisis in some of the most important European markets including No. 1 buyer Spain, state-run tobacco company officials said Tuesday.

Sales totalled $416 million in 2012, Habanos SA representatives told reporters at a smoky press conference held to kick off Cuba’s Cigar Festival in a Havana convention centre. That was up from $401 million the previous year.

Some 1,500 participants from 70 countries were attending the island’s 15th annual stogie-fest, which will include a sommelier contest, an exhibition of tobacco-infused cooking and an auction of humidors that can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece.

Officials are also trying out a humidor raffle this year with 1,000 tickets being sold at $100 a pop and the proceeds benefitting Cuba’s health system.

German tennis great Boris Becker, Cuban crooner Omara Portuondo and a trio of former NBA players including Seattle Supersonics star Gary Payton are among the announced celebrity invitees.

Spain, which is currently suffering from a 26 per cent unemployment rate, continues to be the top importer of Cuban cigars, although officials said sales there were hurt by economic woes.

That was offset by a 6 per cent uptick in China, the No. 3 buyer and an increasingly important market for cigars.

Washington’s 51-year economic embargo prohibits Cuban cigars from being imported to the United States.