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Cigar festival draws true aficionados

HAVANA, Cuba (AP) -- Passion comes in many forms. For hundreds of visitors to Cuba this month, it's brown, rolled and good with brandy.

Cigar fanatics, deterred by neither money nor distance, travel across the world and pay thousands of dollars to experience the supreme stogie at its source. Those making the pilgrimage to Cuba for the annual Havana cigar festival say the smokes bring them pleasure, peace and, often, big bucks.

"This is my life," said Jimmy Ng, a Malaysian who left the travel business to become a cigar merchant some 10 years ago.

Ng, 46, spends most waking moments devoted to his new trade. He owns hundreds of books on cigars, and smokes from five to seven stogies a day.

At his La Casa Cubana in Singapore, he only sells Cuban cigars -- "I'm a purist," he says -- to a clientele that is 75 percent foreign, including officials and businessmen from Indonesia and Thailand.

Ng started smoking cigars when he was in his 20s, for "status" and to attract women. "But after five or six years, you get the right crowd, and you learn to really appreciate cigars from the brothers, the other aficionados," he said.

Ng, now married and a father, meets with a group of 30 friends every month in Singapore for a cigar dinner.

"Even with the SARS outbreak, there we were, still puffing away. We believe cigars actually give you immunities," he laughed.

Extolling such virtues is common among fanatics. Frenchman Guillaume Boudin says cigars helped him quit smoking cigarettes. He considers it a form of meditation.

"I know if I'm going to smoke a cigar, I have to take time to do it properly," he said. "It really clears my mind, and lets me come up with ideas and answers to problems."

The aficionados in Havana scoff at those who throw down large sums of money for cigars but don't know how to smoke them.

"It should not be smoked like a cigarette, and it should not be smoked in a disco," said Alvin Leung, a chef in Hong Kong. "It's just like at a fine restaurant, you shouldn't eat something as if it were a hamburger, or drink a fine glass of wine as if it were Coke."

Leung, who sports long hair and a T-shirt of Latin American revolutionary icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara, said real connoisseurs need to come to Cuba to learn about the history of cigars.

"You really want to appreciate the effort that goes into making it," he said.

Participants get to visit cigar factories and plantations and network with distributors at trade fairs and seminars. Multimillionaire businessmen and mysterious figures who decline to reveal their full names mingle with publishers, musicians and engineers.

The Cuban ballet and British actor Joseph Fiennes opened the festival on Monday, and some 850 people attended Friday night's closing dinner, including Cuban Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon, Vice President Carlos Lage and several of President Fidel Castro's sons. Elaborate humidors signed by Castro were auctioned off for charity.

Cigars are one of Cuba's most important exports, worth about US$340 million (euro280 million) annually.

Spain is Cuba's top customer. Europe in general buys up 66 percent of the island's cigar exports, followed by countries in the Americas -- not including the United States -- and the Middle East, according to Habanos SA, Cuba's cigar marketing firm.

Trade restrictions against communist Cuba prevent the island's cigars from legally entering the U.S. market.

Source: CNN International