Ev­ery smoke cloud has a sil­ver lining

Chi­nese con­nois­seurs are spark­ing a boom in im­ported Cuban cigars with trendy lounges and bars spring­ing up in ma­jor cities here

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By EM­MAGON­ZA­LEZ em­magon­za­lez@ chi­nadaily.com.cn

The first thing you no­tice when you en­ter the Cigar Am­bas­sador Club in the trendy The Place mall in cen­tral Bei­jing is the strong tobacco aroma that im­preg­nates the room.

Amid a cloud of light smoke, Vin­cent Chen, a di­a­mond trader in his 30s from Bei­jing, is hold­ing a chunky Parta­gas cigar be­tween his fin­gers.

Chen, who looks younger than the tra­di­tional im­age of a cigar smoker, sits with two of his friends, re­lax­ing and hav­ing a good time.

“I like smok­ing im­ported cigars be­cause I en­joy the taste and it is a good­way to so­cial­ize with friends,” he said. “It also re­lax­es­me­and keepsmy mind from drift­ing to other mun­dane things.”

When he talks about cigars, Chen’s face lights up and he is ob­vi­ously an afi­cionado. He has his own fa­vorite brands, such as Parta­gas and Bo­li­var, and ap­pre­ci­ates the crafts­man­ship that goes into mak­ing one of Cuba’s finest.

But then, he is the per­fect ex­am­ple of China’s new im­ported cigar con­sumer. He is young, well-off and re­gards his pas­time as a plea­sure not as a luxury event.

In the past, cigars used to be a niche prod­uct, popular among older smok­ers with higher pur­chas­ing power. But as the coun­try un­der­goes a trans­for­ma­tion, cigars are start­ing to ap­peal to a wider range of con­sumers, in­clud­ing young busi­ness­men.

The num­ber of cigar bars open­ing in China’s most af­flu­ent cities, such as Bei­jing and Shang­hai, is rapidly in­creas­ing. This re­flects the grow­ing taste for im­ported, ex­otic Cuban brands among China’s bur­geon­ing mid­dle class.

Even the new crack down on smok­ing is un­likely to af­fect the up­mar­ket cigar lounges. “I do not ex­pect the in­door smok­ing ban to have a neg­a­tive im­pact on th­ese bars,” Mo Dike, store manager at the Cigar Am­bas­sador Club, said. “It could even ben­e­fit us.”

For­eign cigars dom­i­nate the high-end mar­ket, with Cuban brands be­ing the No 1 choice.

The Caribbean is­land’s tobacco group Ha­banos SA, which con­trols the coun­try’s cigar in­dus­try, started sell­ing its prod­ucts in China in 2000. But since its first in­cur­sion here, the mar­ket has ex­pe­ri­enced rapid growth, fu­eled by younger cus­tomers.

Last year, Ha­banos ex­ported 300,000 units of cigars to China, which ex­cluded duty free num­bers. This was a 9 per­cent rise on 2013.

China rep­re­sents the com­pany’s third-largest mar­ket af­ter Spain and France, and there is still enor­mous growth po­ten­tial here. Over­all, Ha­banos gen­er­ated global sales of $439 mil­lion in 2014.

Ac­cord­ing to the Lon­don­based in­tel­li­gence­mar­ket firm Euromon­i­tor In­ter­na­tionaI Ltd, the global cigar mar­ket was es­ti­mated at $24.8 bil­lion last year. Euromon­i­tor ex­pects that fig­ure to in­crease by 5.76 per­cent to $26.31 bil­lion this year.

In China, cigar con­nois­seurs puff away in ex­clu­sive bars lo­cated in luxury ho­tels around the busi­ness ar­eas. The rea­son for this is that, in the early 2000s, when the first cigar lounges opened in China, the prod­uct was mainly sold to ex­pat pro­fes­sion­als.

Also, cigars bars tend to cater for busi­ness­peo­ple, so ho­tels rep­re­sent ideal lo­ca­tions to tar­get that mar­ket seg­ment.

At the Casa delHa­bano cigar shop and bar lo­cated on the ground floor of the St Regis four-star ho­tel in Bei­jing’s Jian­guomen area, the shelves

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