By Anthony Boadle
Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways inaugurated direct flights to Cuba on Monday that are expected to boost growing British tourism to the communist-run Caribbean island.
“This is good for Cuba, because British tourism has become our second most-important market after Canada,” said Cuban Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero, at the airport to meet Branson on the inaugural flight.
Branson, renowned for his publicity stunts, posed on the wing of his jumbo jet with two dancers from Havana’s famed Tropicana cabaret, and British lightweight boxer Amir Khan.
Virgin Atlantic’s larger rival British Airways stopped flying to Havana three years ago. “A lot of the UK travel trade have been looking for something like Virgin flying into Cuba,” said Joe Prem, director of Cuba Select Travel, a British tour operator.
The number of British tourists visiting Cuba rose 35 percent in the first quarter of 2005, to 43 900 arrivals.
British vacationers have outnumbered Italian, French and German tourists this year, Cuban officials said.
Tourism generates 40 percent of Cuba’s foreign currency earnings. Cuba hosted a record 2 million tourists last year.
Branson said Virgin Atlantic expects to carry 42 000 passengers to Cuba in the first year, flying a Boeing 747-400 twice a week from London’s Gatwick airport to Havana.
“We plan to expand the market dramatically,” Branson said at a news conference. The airline could be flying 150 000 to 200 000 people a year to Cuba within three to four years, he estimated.
Virgin Atlantic is 51 percent owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and 49 percent owned by Singapore Airlines.