BUSINESS leaders have heralded a "step change" in the relationship between Scotland and China following a key trade deal that will safeguard thousands of jobs in Grangemouth, coupled with news that Edinburgh will become home to a pair of giant pandas.
• Giant panda Yangguang, which along with mate Tian Tian will be heading for Edinburgh Zoo within the coming year. Picture: AP
It is believed that the impending arrival of Tian Tian and Yangguang at Edinburgh Zoo could generate tens of millions of pounds every year for Scotland's economy as the rare animals draw hundreds of thousands of extra tourists to the capital.
Meanwhile, Grangemouth oil refinery owner Ineos announced a memorandum of understanding with China's biggest oil and gas producer, PetroChina. The deal will see Chinese investment into Ineos's refining operations at Grangemouth, which will also share oil-refining technology with the China National Petroleum Corporation.
Chinese vice-premier Li Keqiang, who is on a four-day trade visit to the UK, on Sunday announced a 6.4 million licensing deal to introduce Scottish renewable enegry technology to China.
The agreement between the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which owns Edinburgh Zoo, and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Society was signed yesterday in London, witnessed by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Mr Li.
Business leaders said tens of thousands of visitors each year were likely to choose Scotland as a holiday destination specifically to catch a glimpse of the pandas, which will make their home in a specially adapted enclosure at Edinburgh Zoo within the coming year.
Edinburgh will be the first UK zoo to host pandas for 17 years and will be one of only four in Europe that has the endangered animals. Just seven countries worldwide hold loan agreements for pandas from China.
Zoo officials believe the arrival of the pandas - which are likely to stay in Scotland for about four or five years as part of a breeding programme - could double visitor numbers at the attraction, which has suffered from declining revenues amid the economic downturn.
Last year it revealed plans to reduce its full-time staff of 200 by 50 to save money.
Scottish companies are also likely to vie for the chance to link their names to the zoo's newest attraction, which business chiefs say could offer them trade links with China, the world's fastest-growing economy.
"The number of people who come to Edinburgh specifically for the zoo will change completely," said Graham Birse, managing director of the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce.
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"Hundreds of thousands of extra people are likely to visit the city every year specifically to see the pandas - some from elsewhere in Scotland and some from very far away.
"I would expect the income that will generate in terms of tourism will run well into the tens of millions and I wouldn't be surprised if it was as high as 100 million."
Giant pandas exist in the wild only in China. There are believed to be just 1,600 left in the wild.
VisitScotland chairman Mike Cantlay pointed to a 70 per cent rise in visitor numbers at Adelaide Zoo in Australia after a pair of pandas arrived in 2008.
He said: "With Edinburgh set to become the only city in the UK that is home to giant pandas, we expect that there will be a considerable surge in interest among potential visitors."At present, only 2 per cent of Edinburgh's European tourists go to the zoo - instead heading to historic attractions such as Edinburgh Castle - and most of its revenue comes from Scottish visitors. But zoo officials believe the arrival of the pandas will change that. Only zoos in Berlin, Madrid and Vienna currently boast pandas among their attractions.
Scottish Tourism Forum chairman Iain Herbert said he did not think the bears would overshadow Edinburgh's other attractions.
"I am sure the marketing experts will use the panda to attract visitors to the city who would have perhaps not otherwise thought of visiting, but whether we'll big it up as home of the panda, I'm not sure."
Staff at Edinburgh Zoo will work with Chinese experts to settle the animals into their new enclosure, formerly inhabited by gorillas. The pair are to be kept separately, apart from three days a year when zoo workers hope they will mate. Any cubs produced will remain the property of China.
Culture and external affairs minister Fiona Hyslop said Edinburgh Zoo had a world-leading reputation for conservation.
"As well as supporting China's work to protect these animals, the arrival of the pandas is expected to bring significant economic benefits for Scotland in terms of tourism," she added.
Gary Wilson, RZSS chief operating officer, said the pandas' arrival was a catalyst for a major overhaul.
"We will need to put in new ticketing facilities and allow online booking," he said. "It is the way the zoo has to go anyway, to move forward."
It is understood China usually charges foreign nations 500,000 a year to lease a panda, but the zoo refused to comment on how much the project would cost.
Four years ago, officials at Atlanta Zoo in the United States warned that the charges were too high and they may have to return the pandas to China.
"There are no figures we can discuss at the moment," said RZSS deputy chairman Manus Fullerton. "A lot of the funds we have earmarked for this project are going into the conservation work of pandas."Mr Birse added that the deal would forge links between China and Scottish businesses - especially those that financially associated themselves with the new panda enclosure.
"The real benefit is for companies which will be able to build a relationship with China off the back of this collaboration," he said, adding that golf businesses would be likely to be first in line for sponsorship, hoping to cash in on the burgeoning industry in China, where more golf courses are under construction than exist in the whole of the United States.
Pandas are seen as iconic and politically important animals in China - and the loan deals are of high diplomatic, cultural and political significance.
Liu Xiaoming, China's ambassador to the UK, said yesterday: "This historical agreement is a gift to the people of the UK from China. It will represent an important symbol of our friendship and will bring our two people closer together."
The names of the pandas, Tian Tian and Yangguang, mean "Sweet" and "Sunshine".Chinese consul Xiutian Tan said the names were a "good omen" for Scotland.