By Anthony Boadle
HAVANA (Reuters) - Wealthy aficionados and retailers descended on the Mecca of cigar lovers this week for five days of smoke-filled parties and tours of tobacco plantations and factories that roll the world’s most famous cigars.
The annual Habanos festival includes the most lavish banquet laid on each year by the communist-run country where humidors signed by President Fidel Castro are auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars.
One highlight this year is a dinner celebrating the 130th birthday of another famous Cuban cigar smoker, Winston Churchill, attended by his great grand-daughter Jenny Repard.
For the connoisseur, the festival offers a first hand view of cigar production and how the tobacco harvest is doing. It is also an opportunity to indulge in the pleasures of cigar smoking and Havana nightlife.
There were cabaret dancers, salsa music and fireworks at a welcoming dinner on Monday at the La Cabana garrison fortress overlooking Havana.
Castro, 77, did not attend, but his bearded son Fidelito—who is not a cigar smoker—was at the head table.
For many aficionados, the festival is a chance to go on a spending spree and stock up with their favourite smokes.
A London stock broker was “buying up humidors of cigars as if they were cigarettes,” said one visitor.
On Tuesday, visitors toured factories where smiling Cubans rolled famed Cohiba and Montecristo cigars under posters of Che Guevara and other revolutionary heroes.
An interesting stop for retailers was the new H.Upmann cigar factory opened this year in a remodelled building that used to make Partagas cigarettes.
To mark the 160th anniversary of the founding in Havana of the legendary brand by two German bankers, the Upmann brothers, a special humidor of 100 cigars was on sale for $1,600 (850 pounds).
A new warehouse for ageing tobacco in Havana won praise from experts as a major development for Cuba’s $250 million a year cigar industry, allowing the ageing of filler and binder, not just the wrapper leaf.
“Going into a room and watching a bale of tobacco age is perhaps not the most exciting thing for most people, but it makes my heart race,” said Simon Chase, director of Hunters & Frankau, exclusive distributors of Cuban cigars in Britain.
“It’s terribly exciting.” he said.
Cigar sales peaked two years ago, after the stock market bubble burst and cut into expensive pleasures, retailers said.
Habanos S.A., a joint venture between the Cuban state and Madrid-based Altadis, has introduced a low-cost machine-rolled cigar, the Guantanamera, that has sold very well in Europe.
“These visits promote the sale of Cuban tobacco,” said Yuri Sanchez, who rolls 140 Cohiba coronitas a day at Havana’s Romeo y Julieta factory.
Sanchez complained pay was too little for such monotonous work. He earns 180 pesos a month, or $7, not enough to buy a Churchill, the British leader’s favourite, at the shop downstairs.