Sir Richard Branson has hailed Israel’s entrepreneurial flair as he touched down in Tel Aviv for a trip celebrating Virgin Atlantic’s new route between London and Tel Aviv.
One of the world’s best known businessmen kissed the tarmac at Ben Gurion after disembarking with cabin crew waving Israeli and British flags at the start of a three-day trip.
An obviously happy and enthusiastic Sir Richard – fresh off a morning flight from Miami before joining a packed Virgin Atlantic plane to Tel Aviv – spoke warmly of Tel Aviv, of its attractiveness as a place for city breaks, or as a centre for the global gay community. But he also praised the “can-do” spirit of Israel’s tech entrepreneurs, which found an echo in his reminiscence about how he began Virgin Airlines 35 years ago.
Flanked by Virgin Atlantic’s Israeli CEO Shai Weiss, clearly thrilled at the opportunity to show off his home country, and the deputy director of Israel’s Tourism Ministry, Pini Shani, Sir Richard laughed and joked with the press. But he turned serious momentarily when asked by the Jewish News about the issue of boycott of Israel.
He said: “There are definitely big issues that need to be sorted out in this region and I believe there need to be brave politicians who sort out these issues. You can’t leave something festering in your body year after year, decade after decade. We very much hope that this country can have brave leaders who say, enough’s enough, let’s cut through and get it sorted. In the meantime I think trade should continue and we should trade with Israel. The vast majority of Israelis are great entrepreneurs and they need tourists. We are happy to do that.”
He brought with him over 40 journalists for the visit which will include an opportunity for Israeli entrepreneurs to Pitch to Rich and tours of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Within hours of arrival, he had met Uri Geller and turned his hand to making humous. On Friday morning, the Virgin team and Sir Richard are due to set up a stall in Jaffa market and challenge locals to barter with him for a flight to London. A spokesperson wasn’t sure what would be accepted in exchange for a seat to London – but she looked forward to finding out.
Sir Richard also declared himself ready to sample Tel Aviv’s party life – with a big event featuring local dignitaries planned for tomorrow night.
The tel aviv route, which has already carried 14,000 passengers since its inauguration on September 25, is aimed squarely at promoting Tel Aviv as the central Middle East hub between Europe and the US, according to Virgin’s chief commercial officer, Juha Jarvinen.
He told Jewish News: “Tel Aviv has the biggest originator of passengers in the Middle East to New York – 2700 people travel every day from Israel to New York and onwards to other cities.” Now Virgin is aggressively seeking a share of that market, with a carefully thought out flight schedule which enables a traveller from Tel Aviv to get business done in London before going on to the US.
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The Virgin founder and Weiss have revealed ambitious plans for the company. Sir Richard said that once Heathrow’s third runway is built, Virgin will bid to become Britain’s second flagship carrier alongside British Airways. Mr Weiss said that Virgin had acquired the budget airline FlyBe, which will be renamed Virgin Connect, and offer provincial travellers a way to link directly to the London-Tel Aviv route.
Although the company acknowledged that it was targeting business travellers and first time visitors to Israel, (particularly with its Virgin Holidays packages and its new “Classic Israel” escorted tours), Weiss emphasised that its success was “in attention to detail”. He said that Virgin paid “attention and respect” to cultural sensitivities and had sent a delegation of cabin crew to Golders Green to discuss kashrut with local restaurants and customers. On offer in the Upper Class cabin, besides vegetarian choices, is a range of Hermolis meals – which somehow taste better for being served on proper china with real cutlery.