Virgin Atlantic Launches Inaugural Flight to Havana

HAVANA (AP) -- Virgin Atlantic launched an inaugural flight to Havana on Monday ahead of regular, twice-a-week service from London's Gatwick Airport beginning in July.

British billionaire and Virgin Express Holdings Plc chief Richard Branson posed with two Cuban showgirls on the plane's wing after it rolled up on the Havana runway.

He danced and sang the Cuban folk song ''Guantanamera'' with school children and kissed the runway's asphalt after being received by Tourism Minister Manuel Marrero.

''I think there are billions of people who'd like to come to Cuba,'' he told reporters at the airport. ''I think (our venture) will be enormously successful. We'll make it so.''

Weekly flights on Thursdays and Saturdays between London and Havana were to begin July 7.

''Cuba as a destination has really captivated the imagination of British travelers,'' Branson said later at a news conference in Havana's Hotel Nacional. ''Within three years, we'll overtake the Canadians.''

Canadians top the list of tourists coming to the communist-run island, followed by Italians and the French. British tourists are No. 7 on the list, but growing.

The last eight years have seen an average annual growth of 19.5 percent among British tourists, according to Cuba's Tourism Ministry. Last year more than 160,000 British tourists came to Cuba, up from 46,000 in 1997, the ministry said.

Branson said Virgin Atlantic plans to transport some 42,000 passengers this first year, with hopes of increasing that number to 200,000 within a few years.

''I honestly don't think there's been any other destination that's created as much excitement for the British people,'' he said. ''Cuba will sell itself.''

The most common destinations for British tourists on the island are the beach resorts of Varadero, Holguin, Jardines del Rey and Cayo Santa Maria.

Branson, who traveled here with his son and parents, said he expected the new flights to pump some 30 million pounds (US$55 million) in to Cuba's economy, including jobs, new commerce and tourism.

Branson and some 150 guests were scheduled to fly to Nassau, Bahamas, Tuesday, where Virgin is also launching new direct service from Gatwick, beginning July 4. Some 200 other British passengers who arrived to Havana Monday were to stay as tourists in Cuba for about 10 days.

Passengers included British boxing sensation Amir Khan and Cuba's ambassador to Great Britain.

Cubana Airlines currently flies from Havana and the city of Holguin to London two times a week.