THE birth of a baby panda at Edinburgh Zoo will unleash an economic jackpot for the Capital of up to £30 million, tourism leaders predict.
News that star attraction Tian Tian is believed to be pregnant raised hopes of a bumper city pay day – with around 230,000 extra visitors per year expected to flood the city.
If the pregnancy bears fruit, the UK’s first panda cub will thrust Edinburgh into the glare of the world’s media and – judging by experiences at rival zoos – the park should expect an unprecedented surge of interest and record-breaking attendances.
It is thought the financial fillip could top £40m over the next decade should Tian Tian deliver two or more babies on her due date, which is expected to fall between August 29 and 31.
Zoo bosses are now set to close the panda enclosure entirely following yesterday’s pregnancy announcement.
Tian Tian and male partner Yang Guang, both aged ten, arrived on loan from China in December 2011 and will remain at Edinburgh Zoo for ten years.
Any cubs born in the Capital would be returned to China at the age of two, mimicking the age of natural dispersal in the wild.
Zoo staff will have the honour of christening the cub but it is understood any name will have to be approved by Chinese authorities.
Business experts say a post-natal cash boon will emerge almost immediately courtesy of soaring hotel bookings, souvenir purchases and retail sales.
Professor Brian Hay, of Queen Margaret University, said he expected a 30 per cent jump in visitor numbers through the turnstiles – which totalled 760,00 last year but could now soar past the one million mark.
He said: “There will be a feel-good factor and it’s great publicity for Edinburgh, with a rise in consumer confidence as all good news helps the economy.
“Most of the benefit will probably be felt in the first couple of years after the panda’s birth. I think there will be a particular increase in visitors from the Far East, the rest of Scotland and, possibly, the north of England – anywhere within a day trip of Edinburgh.”
Another upshot of a fruitful breeding programme is likely to be strengthened commercial bonds with a global superpower.
Trade with China boosted the Scottish economy to the tune of £1.5 billion in the last decade – a figure expected to double by 2020.
Graham Birse, of Edinburgh Napier’s Business School, said a successful panda birth would help cement the Capital’s reputation as a scientific pioneer, leading to extra investment and trade deals with Asia.
He said: “With the arrival of a panda, I think we can expect a 20 to 25 per cent increase in the number of Chinese visitors coming to Edinburgh and Scotland, or 2500 people in round numbers.
“If you extend that to trade, which takes longer to materialise, then we could be looking at tens of millions of pounds in additional trade with Scotland, over and above visitor spend.
“As Edinburgh is the capital city, and the centre of the Scottish animal husbandry, veterinary medicine and medical genomics sectors, and because there is so much Chinese student traffic, I wouldn’t say it’s unfair to suggest that around a third of that will come here.”
Confirmation that Tian Tian is showing signs of pregnancy comes weeks after the News revealed how she had conceived as a result of artificial insemination.
Zoo bosses are now set to shut down the panda pen to reduce the amount of noise and disturbance faced by the animals over the nail-biting fortnight ahead.
Two experts from China’s Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda have boarded flights to Edinburgh to assist the monitoring team.
Iain Valentine, the director of giant pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “It is very likely that we will not know 100 per cent if Tian Tian is pregnant until she gives birth, however very new scientific tests will give us a strong indication. They are just too new to be definitive.”
Welcoming signs of Tian Tian’s pregnancy, Manuela Calchini, VisitScotland’s regional director for Edinburgh and the Lothians, said: “Edinburgh Zoo enjoyed a huge increase in visitor numbers when it welcomed its first two pandas, Tian Tian and Yang Guang, in 2011 and we would expect the arrival of an adorable baby to have a similar effect.”
Lord Provost Donald Wilson said: “A panda cub would bring huge benefits to the city and would truly boost the zoo as an international tourist attraction. Next year will mark Edinburgh’s 30th anniversary of its twinning with Xi’an in China, and a new member of the panda family – on loan to us by China – would be a fantastic way to celebrate our ties with the country.”
In a UK first, the animal was impregnated in 2013 but lost the foetus late term, most likely as a result of it being absorbed into her body.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years. They have both bred before, although not with each other, and arrived in Edinburgh in 2011.
FIVE-MONTH WAIT BEFORE NEW-BORN GOES ON SHOW
PANDA lovers hoping to catch a glimpse of the Capital’s newest celebrity resident soon after a successful birth are set to be disappointed.
Edinburgh Zoo said any cubs would most likely be kept in a “cubbing box” for the first three months and that there would be a wait of around two months after that before they are shown to the public.
Preparations are now under way to shut off the zoo’s panda enclosure in a bid to minimise noise.
Iain Valentine, director of giant pandas for the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “When pandas are pregnant, they become very noise sensitive.
“We won’t be making any change to the enclosure between now and our panda being born because that would be disturbance for Tian Tian.”