THEY chew on bamboo and climb trees, nap for most of the day and win hearts with their fuzzy paws and doe eyes. But now, the iconic giant panda is also netting the Chinese thousands of dollars in tourism profit.
The panda has long been synonymous with China. According to the largest tourism site in the country, that is where all the world’s pandas originate. A quick online search will bring up the site which displays the 10 sites in China where tourists can view and interact with the mammal – from research centers to zoos.
However, the key attraction is the Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding and Research Base, labelled as the “most popular” package for panda tourism enthusiasts. The center aims “to train the pandas to adapt to wild living, and then release them into the wild for the continuation and preservation of this charming and endangered species.”
Visitors will be able to learn about the giant panda species as well its struggle against extinction (although it has since been re-categorized as “vulnerable” from “endangered”). Some will even get the opportunity to hold the pandas, in a move the center hopes will really drive home the message about the importance of ecological conservation for these Chinese natives.
Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding director Zhang Zhihe told the Telegraph in May:
“Chengdu is home to giant pandas, enabling it to develop related tourism and culture while protecting the animal.”
It remains unclear how much the center and the industry nets from tourism but the Chengdu facility, which has some of the most advanced panda conservation technology, had at least 176 pandas by the end of 2016 and saw as many as 3.5 million visitors.
In fact, the center has been so successful in merging scientific research and tourism that the Telegraph reported an expansion of the Chengdu facility.
The research center is set to triple in size – from 163 acres to 494 acres (66ha to 200ha) – in a bid to include “research centers, disease prevention and control centers as well as gene banks for rare and endangered wild animals.”
However, visitors also get to visit places like the Shanghai Zoo – “easiest access but most crowded,” according to tourism site China Highlights – or “Home of the Wild Panda” at the Wolong Centre in Wenchuan County, just west of Chengdu.
On top of these sites, in May, the Chinese government also announced it will be shuttling 10 vans across Australia in a bid to encourage more visitors from Down Under. A key figure of these vans are, unsurprisingly, the country’s unofficial mascot – the cuddly, carnivorous panda.
“We are sending the panda vans to travel along the Australian coast, so we hope the exposure of the panda van will have more opportunities to let local people know about China’s tourist attractions,” China National Tourist Office in Australia and New Zealand director Luo Weijian told ABC.
It comes as no shock these non-threatening creatures are used to represent an otherwise authoritarian government, which has oftentimes also used the panda as diplomatic gifts.
Key amongst its recipients was former US president Richard Nixon, who was given two giant pandas to symbolize the healthy diplomatic relationship between the two nations in 1972.
According to a 2006 Los Angeles Times report, 20,000 people visited Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing on their first day at the National Zoo in Washington DC. Throughout their first year, they received as many as 1.1 million visitors.
The gift has created such a “panda-monium” that former British prime minister Edward Heath decided the United Kingdom, too, needed some pandas and made such a request to China.
“The Chinese cracked up. They told him: ‘We wondered when you’d get around to asking’,” Michael Brambell, retired mammal curator at the London Zoo, said.
Soon enough, Chia-Chia and Ching-Ching found a new home in London.
Today, however, these names may not ring a bell in the minds of many as much as the name Bao Bao does. Bao Bao became an Internet sensation when footage of his encounter with snow saw millions tuning in.
Bao Bao, which traditionally means “treasure”, but colloquially means “baby,” lives at the National Zoo in Washington DC since 2013 and was the first surviving panda cub to be born there in the last eight years.
To date, the video, which was uploaded on January 2015, of what seems like a ball of fluff rolling down a snowy hill, has been viewed 6.1 million times.
Despite the panda frenzy, the industry in China has not been blemish-free. Reports emerged in October 2016 about abuse in Lanzhou Zoo after an image of a panda with what appeared to be an injury on its back went viral.
However, two days later, the zoo’s director was quick to rubbish online rumors, saying simply the injury was a result of a cut caused by the sharp edges of bamboo.
“The red spot looks large because the medicine spread as the panda moved. From a distance, people may get the impression the wound is large,” zoo chief Lei Qinghai told Beijing Youth Daily, as reported by Singaporean daily Straits Times.