Branson unveils first cruise ship as he shrugs off coronavirus fears

Sir Richard Branson has launched his first cruise ship and brushed off concerns that the coronavirus outbreak will dissuade younger holidaymakers from embracing his latest venture.

Despite the unfortunate timing – with passengers on one ship quarantined in Japan after hundreds caught the virus, and another turned away by five countries over fears someone on board may be ill – Branson said at the launch of Scarlet Lady that he saw cruises as a growth area.

The ship is targeting young people with onboard entertainment that includes tattooing, yoga and DJs.

The billionaire Virgin Group founder unveiled the liner in Dover . It will be the first of four ships to sail under the Virgin Voyages brand. “I have dreamed of starting my own cruise line since I was in my 20s and I’m thrilled that moment has arrived,” he said.

The Voyages line joins the banking, airline and health club brands in Branson’s Virgin Group at an turbulent time for the cruise industry.

Approximately 3,700 passengers were sailing on the Diamond Princess when 10 were diagnosed with Covid-19 this month. During a two-week quarantine off the coast of Japan, 634 passengers and crew became infected with the virus, accounting for more than half of the confirmed coronavirus cases outside of China.

Seventy British nationals who were onboard the Diamond Princess will travel on a repatriation flight on Saturday morning.

Branson highlighted strong growth in the cruising industry, with demand for cruising holidays increasing over the past decade. The industry expects about 32 million people to set sail in 2020, almost double the number in 2009.

Cruises have traditionally been popular with older travellers, but Branson is pitching a boutique hotel-style, adults-only experience to appeal to younger customers.

Virgin Voyages, like established cruise operators Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Cunard, is tapping into the trend for shorter trips, visiting a number of destinations but with only five nights onboard.

The Virgin Voyages website promises more than 20 “eateries” offering world cuisine and no big dining halls, alongside specialist coffee bars, drag queens and spa treatments on each ship.

The Scarlet Lady was built at the Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, and will accommodate up to 2,770 passengers and 1,160 crew on its maiden voyage around the Caribbean in April.

The cruise industry has come in for criticism over its environmental impact, and the problems experienced by ports such as Venice amid constant arrivals of enormous ships.

Virgin Voyages describes itself as the first cruise line to use Climeon technology, which collects heat generated from the ship’s energy and converts it into electricity, which it says will reduce fuel demand. The company says it will also use carbon offsetting.

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