Ask Aemon Baeyat what the past year has meant for businesses along Fort Street and he’ll point you to commercial space for rent across the street. The chiefs academy which had been there for 11 years was forced to close because of the pandemic, he explained.
Baeyat’s establishment, Cuban Cigar Shop, avoided the same fate. “We were very lucky because we have a lot of loyal customers (and) we had them during the pandemic,” he said.
Luigi Stilletta, owner of Goodfellas Cigar Shop at the corner of Wharf and Pandora streets, added: “It’s been a pretty good year. We were definitely up (in sales) compared to 2019. ”
The collision of typical industry practices and global pandemic metrics has resulted in a unique demand for Victoria cigar shops. But the success of the local stores was not a pandemic-induced increase in smoking rates. On the contrary, Stilletta and Baeyat said travel restrictions are forcing cigar aficionados and others to keep their purchases local.
Stilletta said a large portion of her clientele can afford to travel, and when they do, purchasing the maximum duty-free amount of 50 cigars in the United States, South America, the Caribbean or the some parts of Europe, they can avoid Canadians tobacco taxes of up to 75 percent. Victoria’s traveling cigar aficionados would never have to make a home purchase, he added.
“We always say in the Canadian premium tobacco industry that our biggest competitor is not the corner store, but American online retailers,” said Phil Turcotte, manager of Goodfellas Cigar Shop.
This foreign competition on cigar purchases was almost completely eliminated when travel restrictions were implemented earlier in the pandemic, Turcotte said.
The result has been an increase in demand for local cigar stores.
However, tobacconists have been penalized by the lack of global shopping opportunities as have much of their customer base.
Baeyat explained that the pandemic has strangled the Cuban cigar industry. If a manufacturer becomes ill, the whole plant is shut down for two to three weeks. “If you work for an insurance company or a bank, the work can be done from home. When you roll the cigar, it has to be done at the factory, ”he noted.
Much of the Caribbean cigars imported from Canada also arrive on passenger flights. “It’s a fairly small and light product,” Stilletta said. “So if there is a flight from Cuba, they usually put a few pallets full of cigars in the hold and bring them that way.”
Due to the closures, rarer Cubans such as Montecristos or Cohibas have become almost unobtainable, Stilletta said. The workaround for Goodfellas Cigar Shop was expanding the offering of Dominion cigars and cigars made in Nicaragua and Honduras.
The Fort Street Cuban Cigar Shop remains reliably stocked with vintages from Dominican Arturo Fuente to Cuba’s Hoyo de Monterrey. However, Baeyat said he heard about other stores closing due to scarcity of products.
A solution, he said, exists by amending Canada’s plain packaging laws. One, introduced in March 2020, requires that the decorative mark on cigar boxes be removed by manufacturers before being exported to Canada, which may limit the number of cigars allowed to enter Canada.
“It hurts a lot of tobacconists,” Baeyat said. “I hope if we can get back to normal we should see a lot more supply.”
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Cuba tobacco packaging