What do Hemingway, the Mafia (allegedly), the communist bloc and Sir Richard Branson all have in common?
They all sought to conquer the island of Cuba.
Unlike his predecessors, however, Branson comes not bearing hunting rifles or artillery, but with Upper Class and Economy tickets. Virgin Atlantic, an air arm of his sprawling Virgin empire, on Monday had its inaugural flight to swinging Havana.
The carrier’s first transatlantic journey to Castro’s capital is ahead of regular service, twice weekly from London’s Gatwick Airport, starting July 7.
According to Britain’s Evening Standard online edition, Chairman Branson said he wants to hire up to 1,000 new employees, including cabin crew, flight deck staff, ground crew at Heathrow and Gatwick, and head-office staff. Perhaps bankrupt U.S. carriers with perpetual labor trouble—US Airways and UAL’s United Airlines come to mind—could learn from Virgin.
Seeing opportunity others miss, of course, is one of the swashbuckling billionaire’s hallmarks.
He says the secret to Virgin’s thriving in general is “the substance of what you’re creating,” which he defines as “great quality done with panache and style.” As police states go, mambo-loving Cuba definitely seems to have more of the last two than, say, China.
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.
Virgin Atlantic’s larger rival British Airways stopped flying to Havana three years ago. “A lot of the U.K. 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 outnumbered French, German and Italian tourists this year.
Tourism generates 40 percent of Cuba’s foreign currency earnings. Cuba received a record 2 million tourists last year.
Virgin Atlantic expects to carry 35,000 passengers a year to Cuba flying a Boeing 747-400 twice a week from Gatwick airport to Havana.
Virgin Atlantic is 51 percent owned by Branson’s Virgin Group and 49 percent owned by Singapore Airlines Ltd.