Key Points:

Cuba is synonymous with making cigars but a visit to the communist country by Auckland-based Cuba NZ hopes to identify opportunities for Kiwi companies.

Peter Lyashov founded Cuba NZ in October and heads to the Caribbean country tomorrow to meet foreign trade officials.

There was a lot of interest from New Zealand companies, including wine growers, Lyashov said.

"After conversation with [the Ambassador of Cuba], I get the feeling that to export wine from New Zealand to Cuba is a great opportunity because tourism is there and where there are tourists obviously everybody wants to drink wine," he said.

Ambassador of Cuba Jose Luis Robaina Garcia said it was the first such mission.

"Not the last but the first," Robaina said.

"I think this is a very important move because it's a global [view], it's not one company or one sector, it's global."

Lyashov would tell New Zealand companies about the opportunities he had identified in Cuba, which could be in areas such as tourism, oil, gas and biotechnology.

In March Cuba will explore for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico.

"So a New Zealand company may have interest in this," Robaina said.

New Zealand exported $72.7 million of products to Cuba in 2006, with milk and cream powders accounting for 91.4 per cent and radio equipment 4.7 per cent.

Imports from Cuba in the same year were worth $1.3 million, with cigars accounting for 75.2 per cent, coffee 12 per cent, spirits 6.7 per cent and lobster 4.1 per cent.

"You have many things we have interests in and maybe when your people know Cuba they can find some possibility of business," Robaina said.

"Business in the form of trade, business in the form of joint ventures, business in the form of general product projects."

Cuba could act as a gateway into the Caribbean and Latin America, he said.

Cuba opened an embassy in Wellington in 2007.

"Our people don't know anything about New Zealand, only milk powder and Fonterra. And New Zealand people don't know anything about Cuba except cigar and salsa," Robaina said.

"We don't have any historical problem with New Zealand."

One country with which Cuba historically does have a problem is the United States, which has held a long-standing embargo against the country.

Cuba hoped its relationship with the US might improve under new US President Barack Obama.

"American people can visit every country in the world ... except Cuba," Robaina said.

"It's very funny because US to Cuba is like Wellington to Auckland."

ISLAND IN THE SUN
* Cuba Gross Domestic Product US$37.3 billion.
* Population estimated at 11.3 million in 2006.
* Main exports are nickel, tobacco products, medicine, sugar.
* New Zealand exports worth $72.7 million in 2006.
* New Zealand imports worth $1.3 million in 2006.