x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson seeks UAE funding for $1.7bn cruise ship project

The billionaire wants to raise $1.7bn to build a fleet of cruise liners aimed at younger customers.

Sir Richard Branson said he was in discussions with Abu Dhabi entities on the cruise liner project. Antonie Robertson / The National
Sir Richard Branson said he was in discussions with Abu Dhabi entities on the cruise liner project. Antonie Robertson / The National

Sir Richard Branson is looking to tap Arabian Gulf investors, including UAE entities, for a US$1.7 billion project to launch a new fleet of Virgin cruise liners.

“We are looking at a very different kind of cruise company. We’re trying to create the kind of cruise ship that would be attractive to the kind of people who would never consider a cruise at the moment,” Sir Richard told The National.

He said he was in discussions with Abu Dhabi entities on the project, but declined to identify potential partners.

The 63-year-old founder of Virgin founder has had a long-term interest in the cruise business.

“When I was in my 20s I thought about a cruise ship for the under 20s, when I was 30 I thought about one for under 30s,” he said.

He is believed to have hired Allen & Co, a small New York-based investment bank that specialises in media and leisure projects, to assist him in his search for partners.

Sir Richard, who is involved with the Abu Dhabi government-backed investment group Aabar in the space industry, is believed to be looking to raise $1.7bn in a mix of debt and equity for the venture.

He will look to build a cruise fleet from scratch, starting with the construction of two new vessels to work the traditional cruise markets in the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

A Virgin spokesman said the Gulf cruise market could be a later focus. If the necessary investment is forthcoming, the cruise line could start operating in 2019, he added.

“We would offer more entertainment and leisure opportunities on board the ships, making them attractive to a younger market. We believe we can supply the Virgin ‘touch’ on cabins, leisure and dining facilities,” the spokesman said.

He added that the new cruise line would be based in Miami, the historic capital of the industry. He stressed that capital raising plans were at an early stage and that several potential Middle East investors had been approached, as well as other global investors.

The cruise market is expanding, with annual revenues of $37bn, according to the industry experts Cruise Market Watch.

Both Abu Dhabi and Dubai have identified the cruise market as a possible tourism growth area. Last year, the capital’s Mina Zayed was named as a permanent terminal for cruise ships, while a new stop-over terminal in the western region was also announced by officials from the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority.

Meanwhile, Dubai has upgraded the facilities at Port Rashid in a bid to become the cruise hub of the Gulf.

fkane@thenational.ae