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[MIAMI] Virgin Cruises will launch its first luxury liner in 2020 from Miami, British tycoon Richard Branson announced on Tuesday, placing his bets on medium-sized "boutique" ships.
True to his flamboyant style, Mr Branson arrived amid fireworks at the Perez Art Museum in Miami, descending from a helicopter dressed in a captain's uniform and shorts.
"Virgin Cruises plans to make some waves with an original and intimate experience," he said at a news conference.
Mr Branson promised "a world-class cruise line that will redefine the cruising experience for good. The Virgin Cruises approach will appeal to cruisers and non-cruisers alike." A joint venture with Bain Capital, the cruise line will be the latest addition to 64-year-old Branson's Virgin Group, which includes an airline, railroad, bank and cable operator among its more than 400 holdings.
The amount invested in Virgin Cruises was not disclosed.
Mr Branson said he has ordered the line's first three ships from Italy's Fincantieri, which will deliver them in 2020, 2021 and 2022.
"We made the decision to sail against the current trend of building these big megaships," Virgin Cruises president and CEO Tom McAlpin said.
"We are going to be constructing smaller, more boutique vessels.
"We have deliberately chosen a size of ship that allows us to offer an excellent variety of experiences but in a more intimate environment," he said.
Mr McAlpin said the ships will weigh about 110,000 tonnes each, and have the capacity to carry some 2,800 passengers and a crew of 1,150.
"These are highly technological machines," said Fincantieri chairman Vincenzo Petrone.
"The level of the entertainment... envisioned is extremely complex with technological challenges. But we are sure we can together develop a very special type of platform." Mr Branson, who said he has dreamed of having a cruise line for decades, voiced hope that Virgin Cruises will be able to stop in Cuba in the near future, calling it a "great country." But so far, there are no specific plans to do so.
US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreed in December to seek to restore normal relations, and the two leaders held groundbreaking talks on the sidelines of an April summit in Panama.
The White House sees better relations with Cuba as correcting an out-of-date policy and as a likely signature foreign policy achievement of Obama's presidency.
Just last month, the United States dropped the only Communist-run country in the Americas from its blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, removing yet another hurdle to normal relations.