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Haiti In Crisis; Ethiopian Elections; Sydney Under Lockdown; Tokyo Bans Olympic Spectators; Euro 2020 Final; Wimbledon Championship; Branson Set For Historic Space Plane Flight; American Tourists Back In Paris. Aired 12-1a ET
Aired July 11, 2021 - 00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN ANCHOR (voice-over): Hello, welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm Michael Holmes. Appreciate your company.
Ahead on CNN NEWSROOM, demanding answers as Haitians reel from the assassination of their president. A long-troubled country faces further instability.
Also, preparing for launch. We're just hours away from billionaire Richard Branson's attempt to head into space in a rocket plane made by his own company.
And delayed by a year, there is no shortage of excitement as England and Italy face off in Euro 2020 bragging rights.
HOLMES: Welcome, everyone.
Haiti is diving deeper into political chaos and uncertainty as the motive and masterminds behind the assassination of the president remain unknown. A special unit of Colombian police are now in Haiti to help authorities with the investigation.
At least 28 people suspected in the killing, 26 are Colombian nationals. Police say a manhunt is underway for five suspects thought to still be at large.
Meanwhile, confusion over who exactly is running the nation has mounted since Wednesday's brazen assassination. Many Haitians have been gathering at the U.S. embassy with suitcases in hand, trying to flee the country. CNN correspondent Matt Rivers joins me now from Port-au-Prince.
Good to have you there on the spot, Matt. Let's start with the latest on the investigation, finding out who did it, why they did it and really importantly, how they were able to do this.
MATT RIVERS, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Michael, the official figures haven't really changed. In terms of the numbers of suspects that we're talking about here, they say they've detained 20 suspects so far. They've killed three of them; five of them at this point remain on the loose.
There is a manhunt that is actively underway, looking for those remaining suspects; 28 in all, 26 are Colombians, two are Haitian Americans. And that is about where the hard information stops that we're getting from the authorities.
They have an address, they either don't know or haven't publicly said the motive behind all this, why 30 foreign nationals came to the capital to kill Haiti's president. We don't know who financed them, we don't know who armed them. It really is a huge mystery in that sense.
And in terms of how they got into the presidential residence, we don't really know that, either. There are multiple police checkpoints. This was the man who was the most heavily protected man in the entire country.
And yet, seemingly without that much difficulty, these foreign mercenaries, as the Haitian government calls them, were able to go in there, kill the president and critically wound the first lady, who remains recovering in a hospital at this point.
So there is a ton of theories floating around in the country, Michael, as you might expect. But in the absence of official information, we just don't have answers to those outstanding questions.
HOLMES: It really is incredible. OK, now with the president's death, there is still confusion and plenty of it over who's running the country. There seems to be a list of them.
And what comes next politically, what are the scenarios?
RIVERS: As of right now, you have the acting prime minister, Claude Joseph, running the country officially. But there is obviously different competing political factions. And there's been movement on that.
Friday night, Haiti's senate voted to elect the senate president to become the interim president of the entire country. And that swearing- in process was actually supposed to take place, according to the senate president, at some point this afternoon.
But then he tweeted, later on, on the afternoon on Saturday, basically saying, actually we're going to postpone that and didn't really say why or when it might happen. It's not clear that, even if that swearing-in ceremony would go forward, the other political factions in the country would actually recognize him as the interim president.
That gives you an idea of where we are at. This is a country that has had plenty of political unrest over the past months and years. There's a lot of protests that happened here, many of them becoming violent.
While we haven't seen that so far, if there continues to be this leadership vacuum over the coming days and weeks, we can easily see those kinds of things start to happen. We're just going to have to wait and see.
HOLMES: Yes, I was curious, too, after being around it and talking to folks.
HOLMES: What is your sense of how Haitians are feeling right now?
Those who aren't gang members or involved in politics, the regular people, what are their concerns and needs?
RIVERS: I think it's important to remember that Haiti's problems did not start this week. Yes, the assassination of the president has left this country reeling. No doubt about it. And, yes, that has made the situation here more unstable.
But you're talking about chronic poverty, violence, corruption that goes back years. So the problems didn't begin this week. They've only just gotten worse. I think ordinary Haitians are very frustrated by that fact.
But I also think that, when it comes to this assassination, in terms of people we've been speaking to, everyone has got their own theory as to what is going on here. I think even when the government gives out information, there's this deep distrust already of the government.
When they put out official information, many people simply don't believe them. And you cannot blame them for not believing the government because this government has been woefully ineffective for years and years. So a lot of people are frustrated. There is a sense of hopelessness, I think, among some people.
How does this get better?
And there's no easy answer to that question.
HOLMES: You can't blame Haitians for being fed up after what's gone on there for years, as you point out. Matt Rivers in Port-au-Prince. Good to see you. Matt, thank you for that.
Now aid groups are also sounding the alarm about escalating violence in Haiti. UNICEF estimates at least 1.5 million Haitian children are in urgent need of emergency aid, including medicine, food, clean water and so on.
The agency says the rising violence is only compounding that crisis, in part, making it more difficult for aid workers to enter or get around the country.
HOLMES: Bruno Maes is a UNICEF representative in Haiti. He joins me now from Port-au-Prince.
Thanks for doing so. You said, I was reading earlier, quote, "This is the worst humanitarian crisis the country has faced over the past few years. And it is deteriorating week after week."
Politics aside, conditions for Haitians have been appalling for years now.
How would you evaluate the current situation for people?
BRUNO MAES, UNICEF REPRESENTATIVE IN HAITI: Indeed. As you said, nearly one third of all children in Haiti, at least 1.5 million children, are in need of humanitarian assistance due to the rising violence, constrained access to clean water, health nutrition, disrupted education but also protection services in times of COVID-19 as well as hurricanes.
UNICEF is deeply concerned that further violence and insecurity following the assassination of the Haitian president could pose serious challenges to the humanitarian work of our teams on the ground and the ability to safely reach the most vulnerable children and families.
HOLMES: To that point, what are the greatest needs?
And, to be frank, what are the chances those needs will be met?
MAES: Well, let us first remember that, since early June, we had an escalation of urban guerilla warfare. New clashes between rival armed gangs have erupted in some urban areas of the metropolitan area of Port-au-Prince.
And I'm mainly referring to famdemaha (ph) to matissant (ph) to batimass 246 and 8 was all targeted in City Soleil (ph). And this led to hundreds of houses being burned down or damaged. And we had 15,000 women and children, over 15,000 women and children, who have been forced to flee their homes due to the acts of violence in and around Port-au-Prince.
They are currently on seven sites in different communes of the city. And UNICEF is providing emergency assistance to them. But it's not easy work. We have restriction in terms of access because of security. And by chance we have a very vibrant local civic society and we have very strong partnerships to reach these children and women (ph).
HOLMES: Ad on top of all of these issues, there is COVID. Bring me up to date.
Has anyone in Haiti been vaccinated, fully vaccinated?
MAES: Not at all. Definitely, there are delays in COVID-19 vaccination in Haiti for various reasons. The first one is that there have been delays in the supply of AstraZeneca vaccines, following the COVID-19 epidemic that broke out in New Delhi, India.
MAES: And where the government halted the export of vaccines to meet the needs of its population. But also, Haiti does not have a new track cold chain and it's only equipped with a cold chain for routine vaccination programs. So we could not get to the central area any vaccines --
HOLMES: And that's al on top of all of these other issues, food insecurity, insecurity in general and the myriad other issues.
Just very quickly, there have been billions of dollars in aid or promised aid over the years, training for police, the U.S. had a peacekeeping force for more than a decade.
What has gone wrong for Haiti and Haitians?
What is the way out?
MAES: Well, I think one of the key challenges that we were facing in the last months and also years, is a combination of pay locking 2019 (ph) was the 2020 COVID-19 crisis and then the escalation of violence.
Since the last three years, it's really a disaster for children here. The vulnerability is rising. We have now malnutrition, which is rising the first three months of the year and we have 26 percent more children suffering from acute malnutrition and a lack of solidarity.
I think that UNICEF, for 2021, was looking for $50 million U.S. to meet the humanitarian needs of 1.5 million children and, so far, this humanitarian appeal has remained largely underfunded. Only 31 percent of the required funding are available.
So in UNICEF, we're really calling for more solidarity but we are also urging to end gang violence in Haiti and calling for the safe process to reach affected families with humanitarian assistance in the most impacted area of (INAUDIBLE).
HOLMES: It's just horrific that, all of these years after the earthquake, virtually nothing has been rebuilt and the country is still in this awful predicament. Bruno Maes, going to leave it there thank you so much, appreciate it, there with UNICEF.
MAES: Thank you.
HOLMES: Australia's defense minister, saying that his country has now pulled all of its troops from Afghanistan. Peter Dutton, telling Sky News Australia, the withdrawal happened in recent weeks and was ahead of the September deadline.
The move comes as the U.S. nears its own military exit, as the Taliban claims another victory, the militants say they have cut off a key highway to Pakistan, as they lay siege to Kandahar. CNN's Anna Coren, reporting from Kabul.
ANNA COREN, CNN ANCHOR AND CORRESPONDENT: The Taliban is continuing its offensive across Afghanistan, targeting strategic road and border links as embattled Afghan security forces desperately try to hold ground.
The militants claim to have cut the main highway between the southern city of Kandahar and the border with Pakistan, saying all army outposts in a nearby town have been overrun.
They also claim to have the city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, under siege. In recent days, the Taliban has taken control of one of the country's main trading gateways with Iran.
The dry port of Islam Qala is where millions of dollars worth of fuel and supplies cross every day. Customs officials, also confirming that militants took control of a border crossing with Turkmenistan.
The Afghan ministry of defense saying its forces had killed almost 200 Taliban fighters in 24 hours in operations across Afghanistan and will continue ground offensives and airstrikes to recapture lost territory.
As the fighting rages, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, is still campaigning for peace talks. He is traveling to Qatar, Pakistan and Uzbekistan to meet with regional stakeholders in an attempt to advance these stalled peace talks.
But many here in Afghanistan are convinced that the Taliban is not interested in peace or sharing power -- Anna Coren, CNN, Kabul.
HOLMES: Ethiopia's ruling party has reportedly won a landslide victory in June's general elections. But the apparent win for prime minister Abiy Ahmed isn't putting to rest the accusations of voter fraud and human rights abuses. Some opposition figures were jailed and parts of the country weren't able to vote at all due to the conflict.
The U.S. and E.U. both said that they had problems with how the vote was being carried out. Meanwhile, there were still concerns about the flow of aid and food into Tigray. The federal government's military campaign there believed to have killed thousands of civilians.
HOLMES: Supplies were cut off after months of fighting and there are mixed reports on whether aid is now being allowed in.
Coming up on the program, many nations in Asia are struggling to keep coronavirus under control. We will talk about what they are doing, coming up.
Also, we will head over to Europe and some countries think they can stay ahead of the Delta virus variant, even as they reopen. We will be right back.
HOLMES: Now the latest on the pandemic. The Delta variant causing problems across much of the world, especially the Asia Pacific region. New cases are on the rise in several countries. Also, Russia just hit a new record of deaths. Governments are instituting tighter restrictions and struggling to get enough people vaccinated.
HOLMES (voice-over): Lining up in Fiji for the vaccine, that spot in line all the more important after the prime minister announced the country's new "no jab, no job" policy. Public servants could be fired if they are not fully vaccinated it by November. And private sector employees face hefty fines for failing to comply.
Countries across Asia are cracking down to try to contain alarming outbreaks of the virus. Seoul, raising its prevention measures to level four, its highest level ever, just short of a full lockdown.
A top health official warning new cases could surpass 2,000 infections a day by the end of the month. The next two weeks of strict social distancing are meant to slow that spread.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I did not expect this massive outbreak, as it's already been a while since we started vaccinations. So I'm quite surprised by the sudden surge.
HOLMES (voice-over): Grocery stores in Bangkok crowded with shoppers over the weekend. New restrictions now in place there, too, including a curfew from 9 pm to 4 am, what some people say is too little, too late.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The government does everything so slow. If they really want to impose a lockdown, they should have done it a lot sooner.
HOLMES (voice-over): In hardhit Jakarta, many people more concerned with how to bury their dead rather than what shops are open. Ambulances line up to pick up free coffins, distributed by the government from the back of a van.
Free face masks also being distributed in Myanmar, as crowds push and scuffle to get the coveted supplies. New cases have shot up across the country in the past month, forcing stay-at-home orders in some major cities and townships and some hospitals to run out of beds.
Sydney, Australia, also under lockdown, officials there warning it could get worse before it gets better.
HOLMES (voice-over): The Delta variant moving faster than they can keep up with.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think what we are seeing is chains of transmission. And we're having difficulty getting ahead of those chains.
HOLMES (voice-over): Getting ahead of this virus all the more difficult when so many places across Asia are already behind.
HOLMES: Staying in the region, Japan fighting a growing COVID-19 outbreak with the Olympic Games less than two weeks away now. Spectators, of course, will not be allowed at the majority of events as we learned a couple of days ago.
But for the athletes and others still going, they face a number of logistical hurdles before they even set foot on Olympic grounds. CNN's Will Ripley with more.
WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In the coming days and weeks, thousands of people from hundreds of countries around the world will be coming to Tokyo. These are athletes, delegations, IOC committee members, sponsors and journalists, all gathering here to document the most surreal and unexpected Olympics in our modern history.
The IOC says never before have events in a host city being held without spectators. But the safety measures don't stop there. They began days before anybody could even fly to this country.
RIPLEY (voice-over): The first thing people ask when I say I'm going to the Summer Olympics, "Is that still happening?"
The second thing they ask, "Is it safe?"
My team and I are traveling to Tokyo to find out. Our journey begins four days before we fly. Two tests for COVID-19, 96 and 72 hours before departure.
RIPLEY: Already, there has been tons of paperwork to fill out, lines to wait in just to get to this point.
RIPLEY (voice-over): We can only go to testing centers approved by the Japanese government.
RIPLEY: This is by far the most documentation I've needed just to get on a flight.
RIPLEY (voice-over): Processing my pile of paperwork takes nearly an hour at the airport.
RIPLEY: This is the moment of truth. They're checking my documents. I think I prepared them correctly.
They have now brought in a man in a yukata.
RIPLEY (voice-over): He tells me I need to download an app, fill out an online health questionnaire.
RIPLEY: I have never been more grateful to get a boarding pass.
RIPLEY: Only a few dozen passengers on my trip from Taipei to Tokyo. Many airlines are canceling empty flights or suspending service altogether. Athletes from Fiji have to fly on a cargo plane that usually hauls frozen fish. I'm just grateful to have a window seat.
This is my first trip back to Japan since the start of the pandemic. Tokyo's Haneda Airport, eerily quiet.
RIPLEY: As you can see, I don't have much company.
RIPLEY (voice-over): A handful of passengers, a small army of health workers poring over my paperwork, scanning my QR code, ordering me to spit in a cup.
RIPLEY: So gross.
RIPLEY (voice-over): The first of many daily COVID tests.
Not a problem as I wait for my results.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) negative.
RIPLEY (voice-over): Being here for the Olympics feels surreal and sad. Japan invested billions to host the games, banking on a tourism boom. This is not what anyone had in mind. The pandemic makes you appreciate life's little victories, like the moment I get my Olympic credentials.
RIPLEY: Wow, there it is. It's official. Okawa-san.
RIPLEY (voice-over): I clear customs and see an old friend, our longtime Tokyo bureau driver, Mr. O'Connell.
RIPLEY: Mr. O'Connell was the very first face I met in Tokyo.
RIPLEY (voice-over): As we leave the airport and head to the hotel, it finally feels real. We made it to Japan. The process, surprisingly smooth overall, even as the Japanese capital fights a fresh surge in COVID cases.
RIPLEY: And now as Tokyo enters its fourth state of emergency since the pandemic began, the mood here is pretty somber. People don't have a whole lot to celebrate. Restaurants can't even serve alcohol once the state of emergency is in effect for the duration of the Olympics -- Will Ripley, CNN, Tokyo.
HOLMES: And Selina Wang is in Tokyo for us, joins me now live. Just listening to that, Selina, I've been lucky enough to cover three
Olympics. The atmosphere is everything. I'm just trying to imagine what you're seeing and hearing and feeling in Tokyo, given what's happened with COVID and the spectators and so on.
What's it like there?
SELINA WANG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Michael, when you walk around the streets of Tokyo physically, you have the Olympic rings. The Tokyo 2020 symbol is across the city.
But the atmosphere, the feeling here, there just isn't that Olympic spirit. In so many ways, these games are abnormal. Tokyo will be under a state of emergency. People are unable to celebrate. In the streets, you have COVID-19 cases surging again here as the Delta variant continues to spread in Japan and around the world.
WANG: For these Olympic events, the vast majority of them are going to have the stands completely empty. The Japanese public here will not be able to cheer on their teams, the world's teams in those stands.
In fact, we just confirmed that 97 percent of these Olympic events are going to be held without spectators. After Tokyo made that announcement, other prefectures followed suit. They're also concerned about the spread of COVID-19.
In the past few days here in Tokyo and in other parts of Japan, there have been several demonstrations. I intended one a few days ago. I was talking to both protesters and residents. There is still a strong feeling of anxiety that, even without spectators, they're worried about the spread of COVID-19 from these tens of thousands of Olympic participants.
A lot of the anger was actually directed at the International Olympic Committee, who these people feel like, are part plowing ahead for the IOC's own profit -- Michael.
HOLMES: Yes, meanwhile I wanted to ask you about the latest on the vaccine rollout there. It has been slow.
Just how many Japanese people are vaccinated?
WANG: Yes, Michael. Right now the vaccination rate is still at less than 20 percent of the Japanese population that has been fully vaccinated. This is a big concern for medical experts.
While these vaccines are not required for Olympic participants, even if the vast majority of them are, it's a concern that the vast majority of the Japanese population will remain unvaccinated.
Olympic organizers and officials say that they can keep these games in a safe bubble. But medical experts say that just is impossible with the scale of these games -- Michael.
HOLMES: All right, thanks for the update, Selina. Good to see you.
Selina Wang there in Tokyo for us.
Russia just recorded an all-time daily high in COVID-19 deaths. The country reported 752 fatalities on Saturday. The number of infection- related deaths has been steadily climbing in the past few weeks as you can see, on that graph there. The total now stands at more than 142,000. Russia also reporting more than 25,000 new cases.
To open or not reopen, that's the question Europe is having to deal with. COVID-19 cases picking up again there. The last thing the continent wants, of course, is another outbreak. Cyril Vanier in London for us.
CYRIL VANIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A rise in coronavirus infections, fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant, is forcing European countries to face uncomfortable choices as they open up.
The Netherlands U-turned on Saturday, reimposing restrictions on nightclubs and restaurants, just two weeks after society mostly reopened. Clubs shut down again as the government found that nightlife was driving the infections.
And while the Dutch closed their nightclubs, the French just opened theirs on Friday. Virtually all restrictions have now been lifted in France. But the president is expected to address the nation on Monday. And with infections starting to creep back up, the French president is speculating that new measures could be on the table.
E.U. countries are racing to immunize their population; 44 percent of adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated. And good news: the E.U. is no longer experiencing delivery shortfalls. The European Union has now supplied member states with enough doses to fully immunize 70 percent of the adult population.
So now it's all about getting shots into arms as fast as possible -- Cyril Vanier, CNN, London.
HOLMES: Pope Francis is continuing to recover from that scheduled surgery that he underwent last week. The Vatican says he's gradually getting back to work. He's able to walk. And his blood tests are satisfactory, they say.
This is the first time he has been admitted to the hospital as pope, in order to get part of his colon removed. Francis is supposed to lead his weekly Angelis prayer in just a few hours from the Gemelli University Hospital in Rome.
Football passions reaching fever pitch ahead of Sunday's Euro 2020 final. Next up, England and Italy prepare for a clash of the Titans at Wembley Stadium. Also, Australia's own Ashleigh Barty won her first Wimbledon title
Saturday. Why it was something that hasn't been done in more than 40 years.
HOLMES: Welcome back to our viewers all around the world, I am Michael Holmes, you are watching CNN NEWSROOM.
At 10 Downing Street, catching the football bug, as England prepares to face Italy in the Euro 2020 finals. Prime minister Boris Johnson showing off the English flag at his suitably decorated official residence, as you can see there.
He and Queen Elizabeth sending letters of support to the English squad. Sunday's match, at Wembley a huge deal, if you didn't know. For England, it's not only because a title is on the line. Don Riddell reports.
DON RIDDELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The tournament, delayed by one year, then played by 24 teams across 11 different countries, will finally be settled on Sunday night when England play Italy at Wembley Stadium in London. These are two countries, both craving success after the emotional pain of COVID-19 and the lockdown.
And, on the field, both teams will have something to prove. Italy are no strangers to success. This will be a 10th major final for the team that won this title back in 1968 and who won the World Cup no less than four times.
However, by their own standards, Italy have kind of been in the wilderness. They failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup but have not lost a game in the three years since.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We need both attributes tomorrow. You can't survive a final at Wembley, against England, without a warm heart. And you can't do it without cool heads.
There will come times when we will need to be more daring, when we need to go for it. And there will also be times when we need to be cooler and try and keep the situation under control.
RIDDELL: England have ridden a wave of euphoria to the final, playing five of their six game so far in London, reaching their first major final since 1966. That was the year they won the World Cup, their only trophy to date. And their fans are dreaming of lifting another trophy some 55 years later. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What has come before is not unimportant, because we
recognize the contribution others have made and we are respectful of that. But the near misses and the tournaments that haven't gone so well weren't important for this team.
And over the last four years, they have knocked down so many barriers and they have come through so many different challenges, different ways to win matches, had to come back from being behind, had to go through extra time, had to go through penalty shootouts.
So their resilience and experiences as a team have really prepared them well for this moment.
RIDDELL: While Italy has consistently excelled over the years, England has really struggled. A series of tournament blowouts or heartbreaking near misses have become so infamous, so painful, that the misery and yearning for success, are almost now part of the national psyche.
RIDDELL (voice-over): All of that heartbreak, captured in a song in 1996, "Three Lions," and the fans have been singing it throughout the tournament. They will be singing the chorus, "It's coming home again," at Wembley on Sunday.
Is the trophy coming home?
Or is it going to roam?
We will soon see. Back to you.
HOLMES: Thank you to Don Riddell there.
Argentina is the 2021 Copa America champions. They beat their bitter rivals, Brazil, 1-0 on Saturday, at Rio de Janeiro. Everton Souza from Brazil with more on that.
EVERTON SOUZA, CNN BRASIL CORRESPONDENT: It's being 29 days since the kickoff of Copa America. Despite all the doubts and questions about Brazil's ability to host the tournament, it happened successfully.
The final at Maracana stadium took place with few supporters, only 10 percent of Maracana's capacity; 7,000 spectators were allowed by Rio de Janeiro officials to watch. The first title incurred by Lionel Messi with Argentina.
The supporters invited by Conmebol maintained a safe distance from each other. Brazil accepted hosting Copa America after the refusal of Colombia and Argentina. A last-minute decision, taking only 12 days before the competition is started.
The tournament was joined by 10 South American nations during an ongoing COVID-19 crisis in Brazil. During the tournament, more than 28,000 COVID tests were made and 179 people tested positive for COVID. It represents less than 1 percent. All samples were brought to be analyzed at lab. Until now, no results were released -- Everton Souza, CNN, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro.
HOLMES: Now Australia's Ash Barty won her first Wimbledon title on Saturday. The World number 1 defeating Karolina Pliskova in three. She is the first Australian woman to win a Wimbledon singles title in more than 40 years. It is her second Grand Slam title. She won the French Open in 2019. She called the victory a dream come true. She breezed through the first set and appeared on her way to an easy title until Pliskova rallied back.
HOLMES: Pushing the boundaries is no problem for billionaire Richard Branson but, hours from now, he will try to raise the bar again 80 kilometers above the Earth. We have that, when we come back.
Well, eight hours and counting until billionaire Richard Branson takes a shot at reaching the edge of space. He is set to fly in the space plane VSS Unity, built by his company, Virgin Galactic.
He and fellow crew members planning to soar about 80 kilometers above the Earth. If all goes according to plan, Branson will become the first millionaire to go into space in a plane developed his own company. Branson recently spoke with CNN about the upcoming flight. Rachel Crane, with that.
RACHEL CRANE, CNN BUSINESS INNOVATION AND SPACE CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): The countdown is on. And in just hours, entrepreneur Richard Branson hopes to become the first person to ride a self-funded rocket into suborbital space.
RICHARD BRANSON, FOUNDER, VIRGIN GROUP: Astronaut 001 Richard Branson.
CRANE (voice-over): A launch nearly two decades in the making.
CRANE: Tell me, how do you feel?
BRANSON: Well, I managed to avoid getting excited for 17 years since we started building spaceships and mother ships and spaceports and all these things. And I finally got the call from our chief engineer saying that every single box have been ticked on the safety aspect and that I was, would I like to go to space? And I hit the roof, I was so excited.
CRANE (voice-over): The Virgin Galactic rocket-powered space plane is set to take off tomorrow from New Mexico. The mother ship will release the spaceship at around 40,000 feet.
The rocket will ignite and take Branson, two pilots and three others on a 2,400-mile-per-hour ride more than 50 miles up to touch the inner edge of space, as defined by the U.S. military and NASA. The crew will experience a few minutes of weightlessness before gliding back to earth.
BRANSON: When you're up there, the spaceship will turn over under these enormous windows and it's going to be able to float around.
CRANE (voice-over): If successful, the space baron will edge out fellow billionaire and world's richest man, Jeff Bezos, who is set to ride his own company's rocket into space in the coming days.
The two men have jockeyed for the astronomical bragging rights that come with being first. Branson has insisted that there's no space race with Bezos and that the missions are different.
BRANSON: The kind of experience you're going to get with the two companies are almost as different as chalk and cheese. So we don't see ourselves as a direct competitor.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Two, one.
CRANE (voice-over): While Bezos' flight will be after Branson's, his rocket system, New Shepard, will go even higher, past the Karman line, which is the altitude internationally recognized to be the demarcation of space.
His company Blue Origin taking a shot at Branson's trip, tweeting their rocket was, quote, "designed to fly above the Karman line, so none of our astronauts have an asterisk next to their name."
LEROY CHIAO, RETIRED NASA ASTRONAUT: If you fly 50 miles or 62 miles, you're in space. You're not going to notice the difference between those 12 miles. Neither of these vehicles go into orbit, by the way. They touch space and then they come right back down.
CRANE: Both space companies have had successful suborbital test flights over the past decade. But with space travel comes inherent risk. In 2014, a co-pilot for Virgin Galactic was killed during a test flight of a previous model of their spacecraft.
MIKE MOSES, PRESIDENT, SPACE MISSIONS AND SAFETY, VIRGIN GALACTIC: I like to say you can do risky things safely if you know the risk you're taking, you know the controls you have in place and you verify that they are active and we do just that. I don't think the risk of this flight is high. It's not zero.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two, one, zero and liftoff. The final liftoff of Atlantis on the shoulders of the space shuttle.
CRANE: In the 10 years since the launch of Atlantis, NASA's final space shuttle mission, the privatization of space flight has quickly expanded.
Today, the commercial aerospace company SpaceX, founded by yet another billionaire, Elon Musk, regularly takes NASA astronauts and supplies into orbit at a fraction of the cost of the space shuttle. So far, NASA has been supportive of the billionaire's endeavors, especially after the successes of SpaceX.
BILL NELSON, NASA ADMINISTRATOR: We are seeing the result of these billionaires, that you call them, putting their wealth into the research and development of the space program. We're seeing a lot of advancing of technology, which is good for our country. It's good for building American jobs as well.
CRANE: If tomorrow's mission is successful, it could launch yet a new era of space travel and the final frontier could soon open to space tourism. So far, hundreds of people have signed up for future Virgin Galactic flights, some paying more than $200,000 each. Branson hopes that someday will be soon.
BRANSON: I've had to wait almost a lifetime to be able to go into space. Hopefully, we can speed that process up for many, many others.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a billion-dollar view.
CRANE: Here at Spaceport America, they are in their final stages of preparation for this hotly anticipated space flight. But it's important to remember that this is still a test flight.
Virgin Galactic is taking extra safety precautions as a result. All the passengers will be wearing parachutes and supplemental oxygen will be on board -- in Truth and Consequences, New Mexico, I'm Rachel Crane.
HOLMES: Leroy Chiao is a former NASA astronaut, joining me now. Always good to have Leroy Chiao on the program.
Give us a sense of what Richard Branson and others are going to experience.
What will they see?
CHIAO: This will be a very exciting adventure for all of them. When they get into space, even before, just approaching space but they will get that view of the Earth limn, the atmosphere being lit up by the sunlight, glowing these wonderful shades, bright shades of blue.
So then when they unstrap and get out of their seats, they will get to look down at Earth and see all the beautiful colors. It is a pretty awe inspiring moment. It was for me the very first time I flew into space. The first few moments were really special.
HOLMES: I can only imagine. In a technology sense, this is a suborbital flight which, let's face it, Alan Shepard did 60 years ago.
But are there broader benefits of flights like this and the technology that allows it to happen?
CHIAO: Sure, as you point out, the technology is a little bit different but the event has happened before. Suborbital flight is much easier than orbital flight. Orbital flight, you go up to 17,500 miles per hour to get into orbit.
In this case, you go around Mach 3. So a lot slower, a lot less energy but you will get the experience of what it's like to be in space and the experience of weightlessness and, for a few minutes anyway and you will get to see that beautiful view of the Earth.
So I think it really helps to get more people having that experience and hope perhaps experiencing what is now called the overview effect, where you have that perspective, which is a bit life-changing.
HOLMES: We see all of these private operators going into this, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and so on. You're old-school NASA. I'm curious, your thoughts on whether space is set to become a moneymaker.
Do you see a risk in for-profit space businesses, privatization of technologies and so on, rather than it all being for the greater good?
What are your thoughts on that?
CHIAO: Oh, no, not at all. I think this is a natural evolution. As you point out, we've gone into space for a long time, 60-odd years. So NASA helped to develop the technology in the beginning, along with the contractors and basically showed us how to do it.
Now it is natural to evolve it from a government operation to a commercial operation to see if that can be a sustainable market. So now I'm glad to see that part of the commercial market, the tourism part is beginning and still out of reach for most of us.
A quarter of a million dollars, you can buy a house or you can go up for a few minutes into space, there are a few of us who have the disposable income to make that choice. But the more people we get up there, I think the better; the more awareness we create for space exploration and space travel.
And with more technological breakthroughs, hopefully the price of a ticket will come down. So I think this is all a very good thing.
HOLMES: All for the good and, yes, the technology, will get used by everyone. I want to ask you quickly, Jeff Bezos going up in a few days. He loses the race to Branson in terms of timing. But as I understand it, he will go higher.
How will his flight differ?
Does he get bragging rights or is it actually significant?
CHIAO: Well, yes, they are different flights in ways. They are similar, they're exactly the same in that they will both be suborbital. They will touch space and then fall back to the Earth.
But in the case of Virgin Galactic, they're flying on a winged vehicle so they'll go up on a carrier aircraft, get up to around 60,000 feet, the first stage of a rocket. They'll detach like their rocket engine and then go up in to space.
They're not going to quite get to the so-called Karman line, which is defined as 100 kilometers or 62 miles. But they will reach what the FAA and the U.S. government used to call the boundary of space, which is 50 miles, where the X-15 pilots back in the day to the edge of space.
So the difference between 50 miles and 62 miles, you wouldn't be able to tell. You'll have the same view, the same experience. But as far as bragging rights, I'll let them sort that out. In any event, they're both going to love it.
HOLMES: Yes, they can discuss that over a beer. They can afford it. Leroy Chiao, always a pleasure, great to have you on.
CHIAO: Great to be on, thanks.
HOLMES: Billionaires in space is a bit like waiting for a bus, isn't it?
None come along forever and then two at the same time. Anyway, we will take a quick break. When we come back, not that long ago, most travel destinations were off limits for Americans but not anymore. Some have made it to Paris and practically have the whole city to themselves.
HOLMES: American tourists are finally back in Paris. Even between lockdowns, which started more than one year ago, few travelers were allowed in France. A disaster, of course, for the country's tourism industry.
As our Paris correspondent, Melissa Bell, shows us, those lucky Americans pretty much have the city and its famous sights to themselves.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Versailles, the home of French kings until the revolution and, until the pandemic, a favorite destination for American tourists, once again open for business.
"Historically for us," says the president of the chateau, "Americans have always been the most important foreign tourists. In 2019, they represented 16 percent of the tourists who came to Versailles, just behind the French."
BELL: In 2019, American tourists spent $4 billion here in France. But then for more than a year, from the start of the first French lockdown in March of 2020 until June 18th, when Americans vaccinated or not were allowed back in the country, the splendors of France were much, much quieter than usual.
BELL (voice-over): In fact, for six months over the winter, they were entirely closed. Inside the Louvre, you could have heard a pin drop.
But even in between lockdowns, the streets of Paris, one of the most visited cities in the world, were hard to recognize without the foreigners, a disaster for France's tourism industry, which represented more than 7 percent of the country's GDP as of 2018. Now with Americans allowed back in, there is at least hope.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There are about 25 percent of our passengers at the moment so which is very encouraging because we didn't expect Americans to be so early back in Paris.
BELL (voice-over): But many have rushed over, making the most of the opportunity to travel abroad. And with places like the Champs-Elysees still much quieter than usual.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So beautiful. Like I'm enjoying everything about. It's so different than the United States. So we're like we're enjoying it to the boys (ph). It's so breathtaking.
BELL (voice-over): The Eiffel Tower reopens a week from now. American tourists are back already.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. It's the first time we've been on a plane in over a year. And the flight was great though the flight was full, which was interesting. It took about an hour to get through the airport, just to get out of the airport. But yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once you're in, you're in.
BELL (voice-over): With a chance to see Paris as few tourists ever get to see it, without too many other tourists around -- Melissa Bell, CNN, Paris.
HOLMES: Thank you for watching, spending part of your day with me, I am Michael Holmes, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, @HolmesCNN. Meanwhile, stay with us, "Tech for Good" starts after a short break. I will see you in an hour.