China is now the world’s biggest market for Cuban cigars

cuban cigars china
A man samples a Cuban Cohiba cigar, made by Habanos, at an event in Shanghai in June 2006.

China has overtaken Spain to become the world’s biggest market for pricey Cuban cigars, according to Habanos, Cuba’s state-owned cigar company.

“For the first time in our history, China has become our No. 1 market in the world,” Leopoldo Cintra González, Habanos’ commercial vice president, said at a virtual press conference in Havana on Tuesday, as Cigar Aficionado reported.

Sales in China have grown more than 50% in the past 6 years, according to Habanos. In 2020 alone, they were up 5%.

Habanos has been eyeing opportunity in China in recent years. Habanos executive Jose Maria Lopez told China’s Xinhua News Agency in 2018 that China was the company’s “biggest emerging market with a potential for growth that is already materializing year after year.”

In 2017, Habanos signed a deal with the China National Tobacco Corporation to promote Cuban cigars and boost sales in China. China is home to more than 300 million smokers – about one-third of the world’s total – according to the World Health Organization.

habanos cuban cigar
Cohiba is a brand of premium cigar produced in Cuba for Habanos S.A., the Cuban state-owned tobacco company.

Despite rising sales in China, global Cuban cigar sales were down 4% last year due to the pandemic, bringing revenue to $507 million, Habanos said in a statement. As a region, Europe is still Habanos’ biggest market that makes up 60% of sales, followed by the Asia Pacific, the Americas, and then Africa and the Middle East. Cuba is banned from selling its cigars to the US since a 1962 trade embargo signed by President John F. Kennedy.

Habanos’ 27 cigar brands, which include Cohiba, Montecristo, and Partagas, are sold in more than 150 countries. Its hand-rolled cigars are considered the best in the world.

Cigar makers say the factors that make a Cuban cigar unique are the soil where it’s grown, the climate of the region where it’s grown, the manual labor, and the variety of black tobacco used, Andy Ash reported for Insider last year. Each Habanos cigar goes through roughly 500 manual tasks in the process to go from seed to cigar.

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Twin sisters started cigar company with only a $500 investment – and now they’re shipping nationwide

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  • Yvette and Yvonne Rodriguez started their own cigar brand, Tres Lindas Cubanas, with just a $500 investment. 
  • The company now ships its cigars nationwide. 
  • The twin sisters have since fought against stereotypes, showing how Afro-Cuban women can be knowledgeable about cigars.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Following is a transcript of the video. 

Narrator: Yvette and Yvonne are used to standing out.

In 2014, the twin sisters started their own brand of cigars, called Tres Lindas Cubanas. Since then, they’re often the only Afro-Cuban women in a room full of men.

Yvonne Rodriguez: Imagine walking into a door where you wanna sell your cigars, and they don’t even think that you smoke cigars, you know? We don’t start at zero. We start at negative five.

Yvette Rodriguez: We still get 20 questions, like an interrogation, to find out if we know anything about cigars, if this is really our brand. Questions I don’t hear anybody asking anyone else.

Narrator: The doubtful stares didn’t stop them from putting their identity at the forefront of their business.

Their three cigar blends pay homage to Cuban women: La Clarita, la Mulata, andla Negrita. All Spanish words used to describe skin tones of women.

Yvonne: A lot of people ask us, ‘How do you guys do it? You’re a woman, you’re black, and you’re Latina, and I think that those are positives. 

Yvette: No, we don’t try to blend in in the least. 

Narrator: They sell their blends on their website, shipping across the country to all 50 states, and in local shops. But it all started with an investment of $500.

Yvonne: We were immediately turning a profit because we invested very little.

Yvette: It’s also a testimony to the black consumer because I would say more than 80 percent of our consumers are African-American. Buying black, that has helped us out tremendously.

Narrator: Even their packaging stands out. Instead of the usual glossy, short and fancy look, their box stands tall in plain wood.

Yvonne: That had a lot to do with the money that we had to invest, but we noticed that it really helped that we are not too flashy, so we prefer to be a surprise, and we sell more to the man and the woman that smokes every day.

Narrator: The seeds come from Cuba, but the tobacco grows in Nicaragua, where the cigars are also rolled, and then later, shipped to Miami. The sisters can’t import leaves or seeds directly from Cuba because of the embargo.

Yvonne: Currently we can’t get anything out of Cuba. We definitely are ready for when the doors open for us to create blends with the Cuban leaf. That would be great, combining them also with the Nicaraguan leaf.

Narrator: As first-generation Americans, it’s important for them to stay connected to their roots. So they lead trips to Havana, taking people through plantations and factories of Cuban cigars.

And tourists are often surprised when they see many of the workers rolling cigars are Afro-Cuban women.

Yvette: The most famous cigars in the world are being rolled by black women. It’s really a testimony to the history of tobacco and cigars.

We’re part of history. It’s like, I am Cuba, and I am cigars, you know what I mean?

We could have put models as the face of the brand, super sexy girls or super hot guy, but no. We’re gonna be the face of it. Every brand has their look. And this is our look.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in April 2019.

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