by Rahul Venkit
A boy with panda-shaped hat holds two panda toys when waiting for the arrival of giant pandas at Pairi Daiza Zoo, about 60 km southwest of Brussels, capital of Belgium, Feb 23, 2014. A pair of giant panda from China, Xing Hui, the male, and Hao Hao, the female, arrive at Belgium on Sunday and will stay here for the next 15 years for a scientific research program. (Xinhua/Ye Pingfan)
BRUGELETTE, Belgium, Feb. 23 (Xinhua) -- Helicopter hovering overhead, thousands of cheering fans, music blaring from loudspeakers...one would be forgiven for thinking famous rockstars were coming to the Pairi Daiza zoo, 60km southwest of Brussels, on Sunday.
But then again, few rockstars would be received personally at the airport by the country's prime minister, deputy prime minister, defense minister and then be given a police escort to their final destination.
Such were the courtesies extended by Belgian authorities to Hao Hao and Xing Hui -- the first giant pandas China has sent overseas for a lease term of 15 years instead of the usual ten.
A PLUSH HOME
Back at the Pairi Daiza zoo, some 2,000 people, many of them excited children with painted faces and Chinese and Belgian flags in hand, welcomed the panda pair to their new home in Belgium.
And it's quite a swanky home at that. The zoo spent 8 million euros (11 million U.S. dollars) constructing a brand new 5,300 square-meter Chinese garden. Each panda will have separate indoor and outdoor areas spanning 830 square meters.
Park officials plan to offer the pandas 40 different varieties of bamboo sourced from in and around Belgium before attempting to grow their favorite types on campus. The bears will also have two Chinese experts supervising them 24/7 for their first six months in the country.
Hao Hao, the female, and Xing Hui, the male, have until early April to acclimatize to their new surroundings before the zoo is opened to a maximum of 18,000 visitors a day.
Even though visitors on Sunday could only observe the new arrivals through closed-circuit television in the park's reception, they generated much excitement among the young and old alike.
"It's really exciting to have pandas arriving in Belgium," 8-year-old Arnaud Martins told Xinhua. "They're really beautiful and really rare," he said.
"After today, my children and I are inspired to maybe travel to China to learn more about these magnificent creatures," visitor Simone Thomas stated.
PANDA ECONOMICS, DIPLOMACY
It is such enthusiasm park director Eric Domb will be hoping to tap in the coming years. He is confident Pairi Daiza's collaboration with the China Conservation and Research Center for Giant Pandas, will help boost visitor numbers from 1.24 million last year to 1.35 million in 2014 alone.
In fact, Belgium becomes only the 13th country and Pairi Daiza the 18th zoo in the world to house giant pandas, considered one of the world's most endangered species. About 1,600 live in the wild, mostly in the mountains of China's southwestern Sichuan province, while over 300 live in captivity.
Apart from the sheer prestige of receiving much sought-after pandas, Belgium's extraordinarily long lease is being viewed as a sign of strong ties with China.
Belgium was China's sixth largest trading partner in the EU in 2012, with a bilateral trade volume of 26.3 billion U.S. dollars.
Speaking to the press at Brussels airport earlier on Sunday, Belgian Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo said he aimed to enhance cooperation with China in such fields such as foreign investment and people-to-people exchange, especially among the youth.
In a similar vein, a new Belgian visa application center was inaugurated in Beijing on Friday to boost tourism from China.
"I hope Xing Hui and Hao Hao will further enhance friendship between Belgium and China," Liao Liqiang, China's ambassador to Belgium, said during an interview with Xinhua.
Even as Hao Hao and Xing Hui come to terms with their instant celebrity status in Belgium, a lot will be riding on their shoulders.
With some luck, Belgian and Chinese authorities are hoping the panda duo each aged nearly five -- thus a year away from puberty -- will be able to bear cubs during their stint here.
"I hope the panda research cooperation program will bear fruit soon, and Xing Hui and Hao Hao can soon give birth to a baby panda," Li Qingwen, deputy secretary-general of the China Wildlife Conservation Association told visitors on Sunday.
Given pandas' infamous solitary lifestyles (female pandas only tolerate a male's presence around them two to three days a year during mating season), Pairi Daiza will be working with specialists at the University of Ghent to study their behavior, hormones and overall health to help them procreate.
Jia Jiansheng, an official with the State Forestry Administration of China, expressed great hope in the success of the program. "The panda is a symbol of conservation of animal and plant diversity around the world. The larger goal is to encourage the protection of wild life," he said.