The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
The other side of the Sunshine State reveals its secrets
New flights to Tampa will give Florida a boost and open up a coast less familiar to British visitors, says Chris Leadbeater
IThe new route makes a statement that a place so popular for winter escapes is still open to tourists
f you had been in the arrivals hall at Tampa International just after lunchtime on November 2, you might have noticed a little more commotion than you would ordinarily expect in this gateway to Florida’s west coast. It is not that the airport is never busy; it greets flights from 93 destinations, and three continents. But it rarely witnesses the sort of crowd scenes and celebrity hubbub that engulfed its terminal that Wednesday afternoon.
There was Sir Richard Branson, photo-op-ready in a red Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt, with the name of team icon Tom Brady printed on the back. And with this, inevitably, came the click of cameras, and a slew of soundbites about a city where the sun rarely fails to shine.
Even to the most casual observer, the reason for this mild pandemonium will have been obvious. A sighting of Britain’s most famous billionaire on a full publicity footing in the midst of an airport usually means but one thing: that his airline has just launched a route.
So it proved here. Branson’s presence was the rubber stamp on the inauguration of a new Virgin Atlantic service – a daily link between Tampa and London Heathrow. “It’s wonderfully exciting to be here,” he said, broad of grin, joking that the route had been in the offing since the turn of the millennium. “Twenty-two years later, we finally got here.”
Of course, “new” and “news” are not always the same thing. But the flight is certainly good news, if only a comparative sliver of it, for a corner of the United States that has endured a terrible autumn. Hurricane Ian, which hit south-western Florida at the end of September, killed at least 140 people and did significant damage to the resort areas of Naples, Fort Myers and Sanibel. A flight arrival will not undo such death and destruction – but it does make a statement that a place so popular for winter escapes is still open for tourism.
It is good news, too, for UK travellers. Virgin’s arrival in Tampa does not reinvent the wheel – British Airways has been flying to the city from London (Gatwick) since 1995 – but it widens access to a state that 1.4 million Britons visit every year. And to a part of it – the long stretch of seafront on the Gulf of Mexico – that traditionally receives less footfall than the Atlantic shore.
It is fine news for Tampa, too. Virgin’s ports of call in the US tend to be “destination cities” – New York, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles – where visitors can expect plenty to amuse them. Tampa, conveniently located halfway up Florida, has long wished to be bracketed in this company. Now that it has joined its state colleagues Miami and Orlando in welcoming two British carriers, maybe it can, both as a starting point for longer trips and as a holiday oasis in its own right.