February 23, 2014 / 2:40 PM / 6 years ago

Giant pandas get a celebrity welcome in Belgium

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Two giant pandas arrived in Belgium on a 15-year loan on Sunday, and they got the kind of welcome usually reserved for visiting dignitaries or celebrities.

Belgium's Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo looks at the giant panda, Hao Hao, at the Brussels airport February 23, 2014. REUTERS/Laurent Dubrule

The male and female pair, Xing Hui and Hao Hao, showed no signs of stress from a journey of more than 12 hours as their transparent boxes were unloaded at Brussels Airport to cheers from school children. The pandas will live at Pairi Daiza, a wildlife park about 50 km (30 miles) southwest of Brussels.

“For our economy, commerce, our scientific and cultural ties, this is truly a major event,” Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said. “Pandas are a national treasure for the Chinese.”

Belgium is China’s sixth-largest trading partner in the European Union, with total trade in goods of 21.2 billion euros ($29.1 billion) in 2012.

Panda loans do more than cement diplomatic and trade ties. They are also good for business. France’s ZooParc de Beauval recorded almost 50 percent more visitors after its panda pair arrived two years ago.

Pairi Daiza had already seen a 30 percent bump in visitors last year, to 1.24 million. It expects 1.35 million this year.

The extra visitors and related merchandise will be needed to cover costs, including an annual fee of around $1 million for China. Pairi Daiza has also spent over $10 million to create a ‘Chinese Garden’ home for the pair. Annual upkeep is put at $50,000 each. The four-year-old pandas are insured for $1 million each.

Still, investors believe. Pairi Daiza shares have shot up to 55 euros from less than 25 six months ago.

Their arrival brings to 47 the number of pandas living outside China, in 18 zoos in 13 countries. Female Hao Hao, meaning ‘Nice’, and male Xing Hui, meaning ‘Sparkling Star’, will travel as part of a research and reproduction program.

About 1,600 pandas live in the wild, according to conservation organization WWF. Their numbers not helped by the fact that females can conceive for only two to three days each spring.

China’s decision last September to grant the pandas sparked a row in linguistically divided Belgium. Some Dutch speakers were angry that they would be going to a zoo in the French-speaking part of the country.

($1 = 0.7275 euros)

Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Larry King

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