By Sarah Marsh
PINAR DEL RIO, CUBA (Reuters) - Communist-led Cuba is struggling to maintain the supply of some premium cigar brands in the face of poor tobacco harvests and rising demand, industry experts said at its annual cigar festival.
El Niño weather that brought excessive rains and unseasonable drought damaged all Cuban crops including the delicate tobacco plants needed for its signature product and fourth-biggest goods export.
"The quality used to be better," said tobacco factory worker Mavelys Linares on one of the tours organized by the festival to western Pinar del Rio province, where most of Cuba's tobacco is grown. "It just doesn't have the same texture."
Linares spends eight hours each day stretching out wrinkled brown tobacco leaves after they have been harvested, strung out to dry in airy barns and fermented for six months.
"It's the fault of the weather. There are good years and bad ones," said the 43-year old, whose husband has a plantation.
Industry experts said Cuba had been unable to keep up the supply of certain top tier brands as a result of the bad crops. They gathered to attend the week-long Habanos festival that ended on Friday.
"They have been limited in their tobacco of Cohiba Behikes by difficult crop years," said David Savona, editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine, which named that particular smoke Cigar Of The Year in 2010.
"And there seem to be fewer of certain big cigar sizes. Cohiba Esplendidos are little hard to find right now. Big cigars need a big leaf."
Savona and other cigar connoisseurs said restricted supply was not necessarily a bad thing.
"If you don't have the good tobacco to make Cohiba, you shouldn't make it, and Cuba understood this," said Christoph Puszkar, marketing director of 5th Avenue Products, which imports Habanos to Germany, Austria and Poland.
"We check 20-30 percent of all the goods coming into our markets. We have not had a bad impression of quality."
The supply crunch comes as demand for Cuban cigars rises abroad due to growth in emerging markets and at home due to a jump in tourism. Sales of Cuba's cigars rose 5 percent last year to $445 million.
U.S. POLICY BOOSTS CIGAR SALES
Cuban cigar maker Habanos said at its annual news conference launching the festival that sales at home were increasing in tandem with the 13 percent increase in visitors to the Caribbean island fueled by more relaxed U.S. travel rules, part of the normalization of relations between the Cold War foes.
The United States also lifted restrictions on the amount of Cuban cigars American travelers could now take home with them as part of the same policy, further boosting demand.
Manuel Froehlich, who owns a shop in Zurich selling Caribbean rum, coffee and cigars, said he was struggling to source a variety of Cuban products.
"We usually sell Cuban coffee in our shop but for two years we haven't been able to source it," he said. "They don't have enough even for the domestic market because there are so many tourists."
"Cigars, which make up half our revenue, are also hard. We started to have supply issues last year and it just got worse."
Hopes are high that a better harvest this year should help a bit with those supply issues.
"Of course you have to store the tobacco first, before they can use it," said Puszkar. "Supply should be slightly better from the beginning of the third quarter of this year."
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Christian Plumb and Cynthia Osterman)