Life on the sea can spark a fire within the soul. With nothing but the wind and seawater ahead of you, miles away from shore, you can’t help but feel rebellious. There can be more freedom to take risks and break down the walls that limit us from knowing ourselves, and each other.
But a sad truth for LGBTQ travelers is that life aboard many mainstream cruise lines can feel isolating and restrictive. It’s easy to get stuck on a ship geared exclusively for straight travelers, an older clientele, and/or families with young kids. Fortunately things are beginning to change, and under the helm of Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Voyages — the new mainstream cruise line created by Virgin Group that sees its flagship, Scarlet Lady, take its maiden voyage from Miami to the Caribbean in 2020 — aims to be one of the most queer-friendly to hit the high seas.
Branson’s Virgin Group has been breaking ground in other ways: Recently, Virgin Atlantic became the first airline to offer a flight with only LGBTQ staff. Its Pride Flight took off from London’s Heathrow Airport en route to New York City June 28, in time for WorldPride. Branson recruited Broadway actor and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt star Tituss Burgess to be the master of ceremonies during the flight.
“Our purpose at Virgin is changing business for good, and that means using our business to make a positive impact in the lives of our employees as well as our customers,” Branson says. “Businesses are starting to see that they have important roles to play in standing up for LGBTQ rights, especially in places where those rights are being violated. This includes the travel industry, as many LGBTQ travelers feel discriminated against or feel uncomfortable being themselves while on holiday.”
Of course, Branson isn’t being inclusive just out of the goodness of his heart — he believes that making sure “customer bases are as diverse and inclusive as possible,” helps businesses thrive.
In entering the cruise market, Branson says he didn’t want to simply charter an existing boat. Instead he set out to build a better ship, and new boats will roll out over the next four years, beginning with Scarlet Lady in 2020. With the new design, 93 percent of the 1,330 cabins will feature an ocean view and 86 percent will have private balconies. For guests seeking even more upscale luxury, 78 RockStar suites will offer special access to onboard entertainment and restaurants, exclusive use of Richard’s Rooftop (a secluded deck with killer views), entry to the private members club, and solo transfers to and from the ship in Miami.
The entrepreneur, whose many philanthropic efforts include environmental activism, believes, “Business leaders’ values should absolutely play a role in how a company is run.” In Virgin Voyages, that dedication will show through in a commitment to reducing waste by, for example, banning single-use plastics. “Purpose should be at the heart of every good business, and an effective leader must be the driving force behind that,” Branson adds.
“We wanted Virgin Voyages to make positive changes in the world,” he explains. “The brand purpose behind the company is ‘Epic Sea Change for All,’ and ‘all’ includes our partners, our sailors, our ocean, the communities we operate in, and our crew.”
Branson intends the cruise line to play a significant part in securing a healthy future for the ocean by launching one of the cleanest fleets at sea and making a positive impact on the communities and ports Virgin visits.
“Each of us is responsible for taking care of the places that we travel so that future generations can discover them as well,” Branson says, adding, “Now that I am a grandfather of five, I am more driven than ever to make sure that they get to enjoy seeing natural wonders of the world as much as I have.”
During her inaugural season, the Scarlet Lady will sail Caribbean waters, giving guests the option of four- and five-night itineraries featuring a five-night Mayan Sol voyage to Costa Maya, Mexico; and five-night Dominican Daze voyages to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
Each sailing will feature a stop in Bimini, Bahamas, where Virgin Voyages guests can experience the Beach Club at Bimini, an exclusive area designed by Miami-based architects where the menu is carefully sourced from local farmers.
Branson’s desire to create a different kind of cruise company is clear in the way diversity and inclusion play a central role in the company’s macro and micro plans. And Virgin remains committed to doing good while also doing well. “Our Virgin companies have targeted circles that cover specific issues,” Branson says. “And at Virgin Group, we have been ambitious in drawing a wide circle around the globe to help tackle challenges that face it.”
In an age when the safety of LGBTQ travelers feels under threat, it’s comforting to know that one mainstream cruise line is dedicated to keeping the waves friendly for all.