Richard Branson, 72, is one of the best-known businessmen on the planet. He’s been the protagonist of juicy headlines for decades, due to his commercial and personal adventures.
At times, both have been combined, like when he flew to the end of the atmosphere with his own aerospace company, ahead of characters like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. The British tycoon won the race among billionaires to reach space, despite the fact that his fortune – valued at about $3 billion by Forbes – is light years away from reaching his competitors.
There’s no doubt that the London-born Branson knows how to compete and get media attention. His apparent shyness disappears when, upon arriving at Son Bunyola – the new luxury hotel he’s just opened in Mallorca, Spain – he doesn’t hesitate to get into the fountain. He even stands up on a chair to welcome guests to the opening party, where his firm has invited several media outlets.
The next morning, he meets with EL PAÍS to talk about tourism – a sector to which most of his companies belong – and discuss both the potential and challenges that he sees lying ahead. “In 50 years, I think people will still be looking for wilderness,” he opines, “and as the world will unfortunately be more built up, the big challenge is to make sure it’s similar to how it looks now.”
The seed of Branson’s business was Virgin Records, which he founded in 1972 and sold in the early 1990s. But the brand remained, linked to a collection of diverse businesses, from gyms to telephone companies, in which the assets linked to tourism stand out. Branson’s empire includes two airlines, a cruise company and several hotels. In 2021 – according to the report made public on the Virgin Group website – the company made a profit of nearly $150 million, of which about $20 million came from hotels. “The Virgin Group is a global company,” says its founder. “We draw a circle around the world and try to address some of the big problems,” he adds, emphasizing his relationship with historical figures such as Kofi Annan or Nelson Mandela.
Branson has never been a discreet businessman. His public image is closer to that of a famous musician or politician – something that he doesn’t shy away from. Since the start of the Ukrainian war, he has met President Volodymyr Zelensky twice. And his stance against Brexit is well-known. When asked if he thinks that the UK’s departure from the EU harms businesses like the one that he’s just opened in Mallorca, he responds emphatically: “There’s not a single Englishman working here, which is sad.” On this matter, he makes it clear that there’s no room for half-measures. “Brexit has had very few benefits, if any, because I don’t see any. And hopefully, one day, common sense will prevail and someone will ask us if we want to unite with Europe again,” he shrugs.
Regarding his interests in Spain, Sir Richard Branson (in 2000, he was knighted by the-then Prince of Whales and current King Charles III) cites the Virgin Voyages cruises that already make stops in Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Ibiza. “We don’t have any other immediate plans for Spain, but I’m sure more things will come up in the coming years.” He defines the Son Bunyola hotel as “a dream come true.”
Born into a wealthy family – yet far from the current abundance that he has amassed – Branson has taken advantage of the opening of the hotel in Mallorca to live out the nostalgia he has for the Spanish island. He visited it as a child with his family. And he opened his first hotel there – the luxurious La Residencia – which he sold in the 1990s.
It was in that same decade that Branson bought the Son Bunyola estate: 1,300 acres of land with a centuries-old building, whose oldest part is a 13th-century watchtower (which now houses a suite). All of this is nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Tramuntana. “I had never really seen anything so beautiful,” he recalls. “I thought it was worth trying to protect this and do something with it.” But the story of the current 26-room hotel (whose rooms range from $650 a night in the low season to over $800 a night in the high season) is a bit more convoluted than the vast surroundings. After the local city council didn’t approve his additions to the building, Branson sold the property in 2002. Yet, in 2015, he would change his mind and buy it back, intent on giving it a definitive boost. He had learned a lesson: “We know that there will be no more buildings here.”
Branson fantasizes about taking a holiday at the latest property in his collection: “If I stayed here, I would cycle two or three hours every day, go rock-climbing and kite or paddleboard, while my wife would choose to sit by the pool. I think Son Bunyola has everything,” he sighs.
The reality is that the businessman – who defines himself as “an adventurer” – knows that this vacation isn’t possible right now, because after the inauguration of his Spanish resort, he’ll be walking along the banks of the Zambezi River, in Africa, where four of Branson’s eight Virgin Limited Edition establishments are based. The brand brings together the most luxurious accommodations into one group, to which Son Bunyola has been added.
Necker Island is also part of this collection. Branson bought this private paradise – located in the British Virgin Islands – for himself. It’s where he officially resides. The tax consequences of this decision raised a storm in the British media a decade ago – a controversy that has been revived this past week, after a legal battle between Virgin and a US railway company dredged up old internal emails. In one of them, Josh Bayliss – the CEO of the Virgin Group –says that Branson “has paid the lowest possible taxes.” This is according to a Reuters report, which was published following the businessman’s visit to Mallorca. The company has since defended itself, saying that these are “opportunistic” accusations that are based on “cynical” arguments that seek to damage the reputation of the Virgin brand.
Accustomed to generating headlines, such information has, indeed, clouded Virgin’s latest milestone. On June 29, Branson inaugurated his commercial trips to space… but at the moment, only astronauts are heading up there. “I sense that, in 50 years, there will be trips to the Moon… there will be a hotel there, perhaps a Virgin one,” the founder says. He knows what it’s like to be away from Earth, although he doubts if this has been his most extreme adventure. “Space was a dream and [it took] 25 years to make it a reality… but flying around the world was crazy, it was very exciting. I was very lucky to survive that.” Branson – who often pauses to think about what to say next – reflects for a moment. “I’m equally proud of both.”
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