Martyn McLaughlin: Pandas are cherished, but their lure is fading fast

Despite excitement over the prospect of a panda cub, the zoo's visitors have fallen sharply, writes Martyn McLaughlin

The frenzied speculation over whether Tian Tian will give birth obscures harsh realities about Edinburgh Zoo's visitor numbers. Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

An afternoon in the throng of Edinburgh Zoo’s gift shop is an invitation to witness first hand the phenomenon of pandanomics, an apt portmanteau which makes no secret of its constituent ingredients; one part giddy mayhem sprinkled over two parts cold, hard cash. Five minutes is sufficient to see the merry-go-round in action, as an abundance of plush toys and panda-branded fudge, placemats, and pens fly off the shelves.

It is now the best part of six years since Tian Tian and Yáng Guāng arrived as the capital attraction’s star billing. The giant pandas are arguably Edinburgh’s best-known and most beloved residents. All that is missing is a cub, an absence evidenced by the annual carnival surrounding Tian Tian’s fertility.

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The fevered anticipation is justified, apparently. A few years ago, Chris West, then chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), the charity which owns and operates the zoo, predicted a cub or two could push visitor numbers through the million barrier.

Such wearying claims are the pandas’ true abiding legacy: hoopla and excitable economic conjecture. It is high time we dispensed with both and asked if the pandas are not already at risk of becoming Edinburgh’s white elephants.

In June 2012, six months after Tian Tian and Yáng Guāng made Scotland their home, the North Lanarkshire-based consultancy, Frontline, produced a forensic study into the extent of their magnetism.

The report, for Scottish Enterprise, presented a series of scenario models, based on factors such as whether the pandas had offspring, and how savvy Edinburgh’s city fathers proved at promotional activity.

It indicated that, even if no cubs arrived, the zoo would pull in 963,100 visitors in 2012, before the numbers tapered off to 707,500 by 2016. The worst case scenario, which assumed “only minimal marketing activity” took place outside of Scotland and north-east England, put the 2012 number at 784,300, before it too fell to 605,400 by 2016.

Now that we have the benefit of hindsight, one fact is clear: in terms of pulling punters through its doors, the zoo is badly underperforming.

The past few years have been characterised by a sharp and continual decline in visitors. Only 633,351 frequented the attraction in 2015, a tally which plummeted to just 574,176 in 2016.

That is some way off even the minimum target identified in Frontline’s report. To make matters worse, it is perilously close to the visitors figure of 547,364 in 2010, the last full year before they were flown in from Sichuan province.

Now, there are important caveats to mention, and it would be disingenuous to suggest the pandas did not have an immediate impact. The zoo, lest we forget, was in difficulty not so long ago, forced to cull dozens of staff as it struggled in the face of the economic downturn and thwarted ambitions to raise millions of pounds by developing housing on Corstorphine Hill.

Against this grim backdrop, the pandas brought cheer and moolah. Over 2012, visitors shot up to 810,937, helping to deliver a £5.3 million spike in income.

Since then, however, the tide of tourists has ebbed; other zoos who have taken on pandas have also seen a drop-off after the first year or so, but for some reason, Edinburgh’s decline is especially pronounced. The situation facing the zoo is potentially stark. Under the terms of its contract with the China Wildlife Conservation Association, it is obliged to host the pandas for four more years – good for those who wish to see them up close, but if the visitors continue to tail off, it could spell bad news for the zoo’s books.

In its most recent annual report the RZSS points out, rightly, that although fewer people are paying for admission, those who do are spending more during their time in zoo. It is for that reason the 59,175 decline in visitors between 2015 and 2016 is not discernible in the zoo’s revenue column, which dipped by just 0.05 per cent over the same period.

But maintaining that delicate balance is difficult, especially if the current trend persists into 2021, and the much-longed for cub – which would only be allowed to stay in Scotland for two years – fails to materialise.

The RZSS’s income may be higher than it was in the pre-panda era, but it has fallen for two successive years, and is now at its lowest level since 2011.

All the while the zoo will have to send more than £2.5m to China, as well as spend hundreds of thousands of pounds more in food and staffing costs.

What frustrates most is that none of this should be surprising. The precarious economics of loaning pandas is an open secret among zoological institutions. At the turn of the millennium, four US zoos – Atlanta, Memphis, San Diego, and Washington – realised that, collectively, they had spent £25m more on pandas between 2000 and 2003 than they received in revenue. Chuck Brady, Memphis Zoo’s chief executive, cautioned: “Year three is your break-even year. After that, attendance drops off and you start losing vast amounts of money.”

Perhaps fate will intervene to prevent Edinburgh following suit, and the pitter-patter of tiny paws will send tourists stampeding down Corstorphine Road to ensure history remembers the capital’s pandas as a resounding economic success.

But as we endure yet another summer of fevered speculation, blithe assumptions, and uncorroborated calculations of phantom windfalls, the raw numbers suggest the pandemonium of 2011 is in danger of becoming a gentle whimper.