By Daniel Trotta
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba's annual cigar festival is telling the world's cigar-smokers it is perfectly fine to enjoy a Havana with a beer or a vodka or a cocktail.
The cigar's exclusive image has long been built on the tradition of the after-dinner smoke accompanied by a brandy or a cognac or a whiskey.
The beer-and-cocktail campaign aims to modernize this image and adapt to global anti-smoking laws, which have led to outdoor smoking venues where cold drinks are often more popular, said Ana Lopez Garcia, marketing director for Cuban cigar distributor Habanos S.A.
"What's new is that the Havana is being wedded to products that perhaps traditionally have been reserved for other occasions," Lopez Garcia told a news conference on Monday, between puffs on her cigar.
The 16th Havana Festival, the world's premier cigar event, began on Monday and will conclude on Friday with a gala dinner and auction, when cigar-buyers bid on cigars and humidors to raise money for Cuba's healthcare system.
Habanos S.A., a joint venture between state company Cubatabaco and Altadis, a Spanish company owned by Britain's Imperial Tobacco Group , says it is promoting new "alliances" for the Havana.
One night of the festival is dedicated to beer, when smokes will be paired with one Cuban brand of beer and four others from Belgium.
On another night, vodka gets a special session, followed by pairings of cigars with different cocktails.
Jorge Luis Fernandez Maique, co-president of Habanos S.A., said other luxury products were aligning themselves with nontraditional partners, and cigars should take advantage of a resurgence in cocktails.
"It's important to join new trends," Fernandez said. "We are also the creators of new trends."
Cigars rank third among Cuba's export products behind nickel and pharmaceuticals. Habanos S.A. sales rose 8 percent in 2013, reaching $447 million.
Spain remained the leading market for Cuban cigars in 2013, followed in order by France, China, Germany, Switzerland, Cuba, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, the company said.
The U.S. market is off limits because of the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; editing by Andrew Hay)