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Richard Branson’s Virgin to wade into cruise industry waters

Sir Richard Branson listens to a speaker at the Global Commission on Drug Policy in New YorkSir Richard Branson listens to a speaker at the Global Commission on Drug Policy in New York

Virgin Group, the investment vehicle of colorful British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is taking to the high seas, promising to upend the cruising industry with a cruise line business.

Virgin Cruises, with the backing of lead investment partner Bain Capital, will design and construct two new world-class ships with the goal of modernizing what customers expect from a cruise.

“We plan to shake up the cruise industry and deliver a holiday that customers will absolutely love,” said Branson of his plans to bring his travel business to a new realm beyond planes, trains, and spaceships.

Virgin would not say when it would set sail for the first time, but it typically takes at least two years to build such a ship.

But when Branson does eventually break a champagne bottle on one of his ships, he’ll be taking on a few formidable, well-established competitors—Carnival Corp (RCL) operates 101 cruise ships across its brands, while Royal Caribbean (RCL) has 41, with another eight in the pipeline.

Both companies have been trying to update the cruising experience for modern tastes. For example, Royal Caribbean just launched its Quantum of the Seas, an ultra-modern ship that offers simulated sky-diving and has an onboard amusement park, among other features.

Virgin Cruises will be led by Tom McAlpin, a former president of the Disney cruise business and most recently the president and CEO The World, Residences at Sea. Virgin Cruises did not disclose either the size or the terms of Bain’s investment, but Sky News reported recently that Bain’s investment would involve hundreds of millions of dollars.

Branson’s travel businesses has had its ups and downs of late: Virgin America, a U.S. airline, had its stock market debut last month, but Virgin Galactic, a space tourism business, suffered a major setback when a test flight failed in October.