THE birth of a baby panda would bring “huge benefits” not just for Edinburgh Zoo but the city as a whole, tourism leaders have said.
Excitement has been in full flow after news broke that Tian Tian – the UK’s only female giant panda – was pregnant and could give birth within a matter of weeks.
If the cub does make an appearance, it is thought its arrival could help bring in millions as visitors flock to the Capital to catch a glimpse of the newborn.
The panda pair – female Tian Tian and her male partner Yang Guang – arrived in Edinburgh in December 2011 on a ten-year loan from China.
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It is understood 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.
But until then leaders from the tourism sector believe a new cub could prove a huge hit for the zoo and further afield.
Previous estimates suggested a live birth could be worth an extra £30 million, based on a 30 per cent increase in tourism.
Manuela Calchini, VisitScotland’s regional director for Edinburgh and the Lothians, said a new panda cub would intensify the existing level of excitement which already surrounds the famous duo.
She said: “Edinburgh Zoo is one of Scotland’s most popular paid for attractions and following the arrival of Tian Tian and Yang Guang visitor numbers have rocketed.
“If Tian Tian goes on to have a healthy cub, excitement will intensify and images of Edinburgh Zoo will be seen across the world.
“This will generate a real buzz not only around the zoo, but also around Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole. This global media attention is an excellent way to introduce the country to new and potential visitors from all across the globe.”
Hopes for a new panda were also high in 2014 when Tian Tian was also believed to be pregnant but unfortunately no cub was ever born.
John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, said a baby panda would be “incredibly good news” for the city, saying it would bring positive repercussions for the Capital’s tourism industry and the nation as a whole.
“We would expect to see a significant increase in domestic and international visitors to Edinburgh over the coming months as people travel to meet the city’s latest resident.
“In Tokyo for example, where a baby panda was born at Ueno Zoo in June, experts have predicted a 47 per cent increase on 2016’s visitor numbers.
“We have waited for six years for the birth of a panda cub in Edinburgh.
“If he or she makes an appearance, they are set to be a star attraction and year-round draw for tourists, all of whom will eat, sleep and explore Edinburgh, spending money with local businesses.
“In fact, an independent study carried out by ETAG [Edinburgh Tourism Action Group] when the pandas originally arrived in Scotland, indicated a panda cub would lead to a three-fold increase in economic impact of the ‘Giant Panda Project’ and generate millions of pounds for the city.”
Confirmation that Tian Tian is pregnant follows the publication of emails between zoo staff and government officials discussing the subject.
The correspondence, released under Freedom of Information laws, suggested August 25 as the due date, but zoo officials later said next month was more likely.
A spokesman said: “Breeding pandas is exceptionally complex and we anticipate that her breeding cycle will continue into September. We’re closely monitoring Tian Tian and we will share any news as soon as possible.”
Anna Leask, professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University, said a new cub would provide a “long term boost” for Edinburgh Zoo.
She said: “It’s a short-term boost but it can be sustainable for a long period of time if it works.
“I think it would have an impact on the local residents market, not just in terms of visitors but in terms of membership which is good news for the zoo.
“But also day visitors and even overnight tourists as well with families coming – there is an enduring appeal of a baby animal. I can see that that would have quite a wide-ranging impact.
“In Asia if you go to Ocean Park in Hong Kong they have a panda enclosure there – that’s predominately a theme park but it has many visitors who are going to visit the pandas.”
Professor Leask said while it was still early days, she expected the tourism sector to be looking on the news of Tian Tian’s pregnancy with a positive mindset.
But she added: “I’m not sure they would see it in isolation – I think they would see it as part of the wider appeal of the city.
“Visitor numbers are high and visitor attractions are experiencing a bumper year – April and May were ahead of where they are expected to be.
“I think they have had a busy year anyway and would expect that going on.”
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.
Edinburgh’s Lord Provost, Frank Ross, said a new cub would be a “fantastic” way to celebrate the Capital’s ties with China, and potentially even further them with a new air link.
He said: “The pandas living at Edinburgh Zoo are well-loved and already help to bring in over a million visitors.
“A panda cub would, of course, bring huge benefits to the city and boost the zoo as a tourist attraction, but Tian Tian and Yang Guang remain popular in their own right.
“Edinburgh has been twinned with Xi’an in China for more than 30 years and a new member of the panda family would be a fantastic way to celebrate our ties – and perhaps be the catalyst for a direct flight from China to Edinburgh.”