Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend

World’s leading cigar maker enjoys boomamid pandemic

- BY JIMWYSS

Locked- down smokers around the world are proving to be a boon for the Dominican Republic’s cigar and tobacco industry.

Already the world’s largest cigar producer, the Caribbean nation is on track to export a record $ 1 billion worth of tobacco products this year. That would represent a 6% jump over the $ 942 million it sold abroad in 2019, according to government figures.

The cigar industry has emerged as a bright spot for the region’s largest economy, which is expected to shrink 5.5% this year, as its critical tourism and services sectors are hammered by coronaviru­s- related restrictio­ns.

As global cigar aficionado­s have been unable to frequent bars and restaurant­s, they’re spending more money and time on their smoking habit, said Hendrik Kelner, president of the Associatio­n of Dominican Cigar Manufactur­ers.

“Initially, we were very worried because we saw all these stores and smoke shops closing — some of them for good,” he said in a telephone call from the Dominican Republic.

But sales quickly moved online and have been strong, he said. “Despite everything, we are seeing strong export levels — the tobacco industry isn’t being hurt.”

If Dominican tobacco exports break the 10- digit mark this year, they will become the nation’s fifth billion- dollar export industry, along with gold, electrical products, textiles and medical devices, according to central bank data.

The Dominican Republic is thought to be one of the birthplace­s of the cigar. Islanders were rolling and smoking tobacco centuries before Columbus set foot on the island.

When Cuba nationaliz­ed its cigar industry during the 1959 revolution, many of the top growers moved to the neighborin­g island, propelling the Dominican industry.

Since then, the sector has surged amid consolidat­ion, diversific­ation and foreign investment, said Ebell de Castro, the developmen­t director for Free Trade Zones and Industrial Parks under the Ministry of Industry.

The country has long been a top producer of hand- rolled “puros,” but now it’s also a leader in machinerol­led cigars and cigarillos, he said.

In 2018, Swisher — the maker of Swisher Sweets and premium cigars — moved part of its production from the U. S. to the Dominican Republic. Earlier this year, Imperial Brands sold its Dominican premium cigar plant to a group of private equity investors as part of a $ 1.5 billion deal.

The cigar export surge comes as the consumptio­n of all kinds of drugs spikes during the virus lockdown, even if some of them may leave users more susceptibl­e to COVID- 19 complicati­ons. Yet Kelner isn’t surprised by the resilience of the “puros.”

“A cigar,” he said, “is like a loyal friend who accompanie­s you when times are tough and you’re lonely.”

 ?? 2017, DENNISM. RIVERA PICHARDO/BLOOMBERG NEWS ?? Aworker rolls tobacco into a cigar at the Quesada Cigars facility in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic.
2017, DENNISM. RIVERA PICHARDO/BLOOMBERG NEWS Aworker rolls tobacco into a cigar at the Quesada Cigars facility in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic.

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