American travel to Cuba has been on the rise in recent years, and now there are two more reasons for U.S. travelers to head to the island nation: rum and cigars.
The Obama administration on Friday lifted restrictions on how many cigars and bottles of rum Americans can bring back from Cuba, part of continuing efforts to mend more than five decades of strained relations between the nations.
“This is a big change and one that’s long overdue,” said David Savona, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado magazine. “For quite a long time, Americans have been prohibited from bringing back Cuban cigars, and this lifts many of those limitations.”
Under the new rules, which take effect Monday, Americans may bring back up to 100 Cuban cigars, whether purchased in Cuba or other countries, for personal consumption without paying customs taxes.
The administration is also clearing the way for cargo ships to travel between the two countries and making it easier for scientists from the United States and Cuba to partner on medical research.
“These amendments will create more opportunities for Cuban citizens to access American goods and services, further strengthening the ties between our two countries,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said in a statement. “More commercial activity between the U.S. and Cuba benefits our people and our economies.”
The number of Americans traveling to Cuba is expected to double this year, to 320,000, as the United States continues to loosen restrictions on tourism and commerce. Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide (now part of Marriott International) began operating its first hotel in Cuba this year. U.S. air carriers, including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, are set to begin offering service to Havana on Nov. 28.
“While it is too early to tell, we think this is positive news for our customers,” Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said in an email.
At Two Guys Smoke Shop in Nashua, N.H., owner David Garofalo said customers are already planning cigar-buying trips.
“They’re saying, ‘We can’t wait to go get some Cuban cigars,’ ” he said. “As great as that is, what this means for our shop is that business is going elsewhere, to another country.”
Industry lobbyists say that the new measure deals a double whammy to American cigar manufacturers and retailers, which are scrambling to adhere to new regulations introduced by the Food and Drug Administration in March.
“What you’re doing is providing an incentive for American citizens to shop for cigars at foreign destinations,” said J. Glynn Loope, executive director of the lobbying group Cigar Rights of America. “And this is happening months after the same administration dropped 499 pages of new regulations on the industry.”
At Davidus Cigars, a chain of 11 Maryland stores with nearly $7 million in annual revenue, co-owner Stephen Castro said the new measure makes it harder to stay afloat.
“It’s good and bad,” he said. “I like to see we’re normalizing relations with Cuba, but if I can’t sell the cigars it hurts me as a retailer.”
Barry Stein, director of social media for Two Guys Smoke Shop, said he wasn’t as concerned.
“I don’t think it’ll end up making that much of a difference,” Stein said. “I mean, what percentage of customers are going to travel overseas to buy cigars?”
His boss, Garofalo, however, is bracing for as much as a 10 percent drop in business if regulars begin bringing back cigars from overseas travel.
“The thing is, right now the allure is that you can’t get it in the United States,” he said. “We want what we can’t have. That’s the big hook.”
But, he said, there is at least one upside: He will also be able to bring back stogies for himself. The first time he visited Havana two years ago, he was voracious in his pursuit of Cuban cigars. He said he smoked 50 cigars in seven days.
“I wanted to try everything I could,” he said. “I was smoking way too much, but it was like, let me get it in while I can. Who knows when I’ll get another one?”
For his next trip to Cuba, in February, Garofalo said, he will be a bit more relaxed knowing he can bring back 100 Cuban cigars.
“This time, I know I’ll have enough to last,” he said. “I’ll probably have to buy a bigger suitcase.”