Branson on wildlife hunt

RICHARD BRANSON is on the prowl again - this time to buy a game park in South Africa. The Virgin group chief is looking at a number of wildlife parks as part of an effort to expand in the region.

"We are looking at a number of sites. It would be a top-of-the-range holiday destination," said a Virgin spokesman, Will Whitehorn.

The move follows Virgin's announcement last year that it was interested in buying a stake in South Africa's famous luxury Blue Train which runs from Cape Town to Johannesburg. The train has been targeted by the South Africans for privatisation, although no date has been set.

Branson is also interested in buying a stake in the state carrier, South African Airways, when it comes up for sale in the next couple of years. Virgin made a bid in 1997 to buy part of the state-owned South African domestic carrier, Sun Air, but later withdrew after it was told by the SA government that, if it did so, it would be disqualified from buying SAA.

Current Branson investments in South Africa include Virgin Publishing, Storm modelling agency and Virgin Cola. V2, Virgin's latest record label, also has offices in South Africa.

Branson is bullish on South Africa ahead of general elections due in late spring during which President Nelson Mandela will step down. He is widely expected to be succeeded by his current deputy, Thabo Mbeki. Branson has also been advising the South African government on its plans to set up a national lottery.

"We still have a lot of confidence in the future of tourism in South Africa and we believe it has a future as the leading African nation. If there is any country that can bridge the gap between the First and Third World, then it will be South Africa," said Mr Whitehorn.

He said Branson, whose record company, Virgin, was a sponsor of the anti- apartheid movement during the Eighties, had been invited to Mandela's handing-over ceremony when he steps down following the forthcoming elections.

Two years ago, Virgin began flying to Johannesburg. It has been lobbying hard to get a frequency to Cape Town, but so far this has been denied by the South African government, leaving British Airways the only UK company to fly direct to the Western Cape.

"Since we launched Johannesburg, it has become one of most successful routes we operate," said Mr Whitehorn.

"We would dearly like to fly to Cape Town. We won't give up. And we will continue to look for other opportunities in South Africa."

Many of South Africa's game parks are privately owned and there is a tendency for the owners to sell up as they reach retirement. Other Virgin top-of-the-range destinations include Necker, Branson's private island in the Caribbean, and the La Residencia hotel in Majorca. Branson is also buying a luxury site in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.

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