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Virgin Galactic partners with New Mexico hotel to house its elite passengers

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Virgin Galactic appears to be getting closer to reaching its long-delayed goal of launching tourists into space.

The company said Monday it has selected Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces as the preferred hotel for its elite roster of passengers, who will pay $200,000 a person to make the flights from Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic also announced a contract with World Class Gourmet of Las Cruces to provide catering for travellers during their training at Spaceport and said it is relocating more of its staff to New Mexico and will be hiring locally in the next few months.

The company is the anchor tenant in the $209 million futuristic Spaceport America that the state built for Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson to launch his flights from. But the project and Virgin have been plagued by delays.

Originally, Branson had said he hoped to launch the flights by the end of 2010. The company is now hoping to begin operations by the end of this year, although its public relations agency said in a statement that the schedule "will ultimately be dictated by safety and readiness — as has always been the case."

The partnership with the hotel, however, addresses concerns about where celebrities and others who can afford the pricey flights will stay while they go through pre-space flight training.

Early on in spaceport's development, there was talk of building an ultra-luxury hotel in the area. And about four years ago, when Branson announced he was creating a Virgin hotel brand, he told a hotel conference one of the first ones might be built near spaceport. But that never came to fruition.

Spaceport America is about 60 miles from Las Cruces, near the town of Truth or Consequences, and about 182 miles from Albuquerque. But even the state's largest city lacks a five-star hotel.

As part of its partnership with Spaceport, Hotel de Encanto will spend several million dollars on upgrades, which will include the creation of "Executive Suite VIP Wings" with concierge service, private VIP areas, customized room service menus, and upgraded rooms and suites.

The hotel is also working on other upgrades that should boost its AAA rating from three to four diamonds. New Mexico has no Five Diamond hotels, the top ranking.

"By partnering with Hotel Encanto de Las Cruces and World Class Gourmet, we further our vision of investing in the local New Mexico community while we define the Virgin Galactic astronaut experience," said Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides. "Future astronauts will come from around the world to New Mexico, so it's important that they experience the outstanding local offerings and character as part of their experience."

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