Scarlet Lady, Virgin Voyages: Cruise ship for people who hate cruises set to launch

As Richard Branson prepares to launch his Virgin Voyages cruises next week, the billionaire founder and the company CEO are insisting that the ship's controlled environment makes it safer than the grocery store, plane or hotel.

"Everyone's vaccinated – all the crew, all the staff, all the guests," Branson said about safety protocols in an interview Tuesday with the Miami Herald. "I don't think that [Covid restrictions] will need to last for too long."

Branson's timing for Virgin Voyages couldn't have been worse: It was set to launch out of PortMiami in March 2020.

After an 18-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic, the mogul's cruise line will launch from its Miami base on October 6 – but at half capacity, with vaccine-mandates and required Covid testing before boarding.

Virgin Voyages CEO Tom McAlpin said their ship is safer than holidays where travellers have to take airplanes and stay in a hotel because vaccination isn't required.

"It's a highly-controlled environment, and that allowed us to create a vacation option that's safer than a hotel, safer than the grocery store," he said.

The CDC classifies cruises as "level 3," with "high" Covid-19 levels and notes that, "Covid-19 spreads easily between people in close quarters aboard ships, and the chance of getting Covid-19 on cruise ships is high."

Before the planned 2020 launch, Branson said he knew they were in trouble when former Spice Girl and colleague Geri Halliwell cancelled her celebrity appearance at the ship's UK launch.

"I thought, we're friends! What are you doing?" Branson recalled. "That was the first sign that something was wrong ...There were a lot of tears."


The 2700-passenger ship "Scarlet Lady" did several voyages domestically in the UK before coming to Miami, where it will be based permanently. The ship sold out its first Miami-based voyage, which will only run at half capacity.

Virgin's cruise company, which was founded in 2014, is adults-only in attempt to cater to younger vacationers. Traditionally, cruises attract senior citizens and families with children. The ship has a nightclub and an on-board tattoo parlour.

"We think there's a market, something like 90 per cent of people would never go on cruises, who we can tap into," Branson said. "I never went on a cruise all those years, and I started asking myself, why?... We got our best designers together to see if we can design a kind of private yacht for the cruise business."

Scarlet Lady has no main dining room, a mainstay of traditional cruises, but instead has nine restaurants, where guests can make reservations through a phone app. The decor is more laid back and tropical than the typical cruise ship.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Virgin Voyages is still expanding: they're building three more ships, launching one every year until 2023. But industry experts predict that cruising will not return to pre-pandemic passenger numbers until at least 2023

"Who could have predicted the pandemic and the Delta variant? But we think it's the right time," McAlpin, the CEO said of their decision to launch now in PortMiami. "There's a lot of pent-up demand."