October 2016

Pairi Daiza's Garden Grows

On June 2, 2016, a baby panda was born at Belgium’s Pairi Daiza park, an event staff called “a true miracle.”

 by Juliana Gilling

On June 2, 2016, a baby panda was born at Belgium’s Pairi Daiza park, an event staff called “a true miracle.” But it’s not the first time the privately owned zoo and botanical garden beat the odds.

In May 1994, founder and CEO Eric Domb opened a bird park called Paradisio. Within two decades, Paradisio had blossomed into Pairi Daiza, a profitable park teeming with wildlife and plants from around the world.

Pairi Daiza is situated on the grounds of a Cistercian abbey in Brugelette, an hour’s drive south of Brussels. Domb had hoped it would serve as the Belgian capital’s zoological gardens, replacing those destroyed during World War I. Initial visitor figures of around 125,000 per season didn’t match expectations, however, and the early years were tough. The park faced a number of obstacles: it was located in the Walloon countryside, away from existing tourist attractions and in an area suffering from high unemployment; it also had a modest budget and no public subsidies. Yet Domb and his team kept the faith, turning Pairi Daiza into one of Belgium’s top attractions.

Pairi Daiza broke even in the late 1990s and Domb took the company public in 1999 to raise capital for new investments. The deal led to a series of crowd-pleasing developments including a large sub-tropical greenhouse (which proved a boon in the changeable Belgian climate), an aquarium, and a Chinese Garden. Visitor numbers rose and last year the park attracted 1.7 million visitors during its seven-month season.

These days, guests can explore themed lands spanning Europe, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and the Americas. The company acquired an additional 35 hectares and Domb has ambitious plans for Pairi Daiza. He recently took the business private again, partnering with Belgian businessman Marc Coucke to buy out shareholders.

Funworld Extra caught up with Steffen Patzwahl, Pairi Daiza’s former zoological director, to find out more about the park’s evolution. Patzwahl now works as general curator of the gardens on new and existing projects to ensure their authenticity.


What were your first impressions of the site in 1993?

It had huge potential, even if we didn’t yet have the funds to develop it as we’d like. We had 55 hectares, surrounded by a wall, centuries-old trees, and 12 hectares of water. I said to Eric: “We can do incredible things here.” I jumped on board straightaway because starting something from scratch and realising your dreams is not something that you can do everyday.


How do you define Pairi Daiza?

We don't consider ourselves a classical zoological garden, a botanical garden, or an ethnographic museum. In fact, our biggest problem when we are doing television publicity is how to define ourselves in 30 seconds to give potential visitors an idea of who we are and what we do.

Pairi Daiza is a garden of the world. Here, you’ll find not only animals, but also plants, minerals, fossils and gemstones – everything Mother Nature has created. We also show the public that man is the most impressive animal on the planet. Man can do a lot of stupid, destructive things, but man is also unique in creating music, architecture, painting, and sculpture. We bring all these elements together here.

To give you an example, one of our future projects will be a hotel with 200-250 rooms. We are creating six different worlds within this hotel. Again, we want it to offer a tour around the planet. It will resemble a huge village of world cultures, with an Indian quarter, a Japanese quarter and so on. At ground level, people can eat, drink, and observe how local products like honey and chocolate are produced and buy them. On the first floor we will have 5-star themed rooms.


What does Pairi Daiza offer?

Visitors feel like they are travelling to different countries and continents without leaving Belgium. We combine flora, fauna and culture. We use architecture, music, scents, and authentic materials to transport visitors to other parts of the world, into foreign cultures. This magical combination is one of the points that makes the park a success. Proximity to the animals is another strong point. It’s also what makes people come back.

We are proactive in terms of new developments. Zoos and parks usually do one big project every other year and a smaller project every year. In our case, it's usually two or three big projects a year. It's a huge challenge. We try to achieve these projects during the winter, but that’s when the Belgian weather is usually at its worst and there can be delays.

We are continuing with this development process because we are a private company. We don't get any subsidies and we have to keep the public coming back. Other zoos in the neighbourhood get subsidies of several million euros per year. They can put a lot of that into television advertising, which is a powerful – and costly – way of getting visitors. We have to work on our own ways of bringing people back and word of mouth is proving to be very effective.


What led Pairi Daiza to exit the stock market?

We have some very big projects in mind for the coming years. We didn’t want to have to tell shareholders that we’re going to take big loans and make huge investments, without paying dividends, after they had been so supportive of us. It was a good step to get out of the stock market. The shareholders got back what they expected. We got to be our own master and make our own decisions again, without the burden of justifying our investments.


How does La Terre du Froid fit into your strategy?

Up to now we’ve presented a lot of exotic cultures in the park. La Terre du Froid (Cold Earth), our northern project, will be very challenging. We’re hoping to accomplish it by 2018.

We want people to feel like they are moving into the cold world of Canada, Russia and Scandinavia. The project will focus on species including grizzly bears, polar bears, wolves, and moose, combined with techniques to produce snow and ice. The idea is to show – among other things – the nomadic cultures and animals that live in the hostile environment of the north. Also, it will help us to keep the park open for longer than seven months. It's a way to extend our season and turn a weak point (climate) into an additional attraction.

We have already built a big, Russian-style wooden structure called Izba, which is a multi-functional building with a restaurant. We plan to have Alaskan and Canadian First Nation villages. There will be some Scandinavian elements too. Lapland, the land of Father Christmas is very attractive to Belgians. It can be used in a commercial way to create Christmas markets and events.

Highlights will include the polar bear exhibit with a great underwater view. We won’t have orca but we would like to show the mythological side of that animal. We are working with artists from British Columbia to bring the culture, lifestyles and beliefs of people from the northern parts of our planet a little closer to our visitors.

The northern project should be close to 18 hectares in size. It will almost complete the trip around the world that we are offering visitors.


What can you tell us about your forthcoming Lost World project?

The Lost World can be imagined as a mix of Atlantis and South America. We want to give visitors an Indiana Jones feeling. The zoo-botanical theme will be based mainly on Colombia, which is a fascinating country in terms of plants, animals, cultures, and mythologies. We are thinking about putting a giant tropical greenhouse underwater. We want to create a surprise effect for our guests, transferring them again into a completely different world. The idea is to create a ring-shaped artificial island in the middle of the lake to hide the greenhouse structure. Light will filter in through the ring, just like the caves in South America where the light enters from above. 

This will be one of our most ambitious projects and we have reserved a huge budget of around €60 million. The northern project will be between €30-50 million. The hotel-village project will be around €100 million because it's very complex.


Is there any other project you'd like to highlight as an example of what you do best?

This year, we received koalas from Australia. It’s a project that we started seven years ago to highlight the continent. We really went into the detail on this project to show our visitors a complete picture of Australian flora and fauna, and everything that goes with it. It took time to get the right, captive-bred animals. We have wombats and koalas and we'll probably get Tasmanian devils.

We were able to get a permit to export 700 Tasmanian tree ferns, which would otherwise have been destroyed due to a development project. We found an exporter willing to go through the paperwork hassles and a quarantine in the Netherlands to house and raise the plants. It took several years to find a method to bring the tree ferns safely through the Belgian winter. We did all this to recreate a real, Australian tree fern forest, which really makes people believe they are in the Australian outdoors.

It's a big investment in time, energy, and finance to bring all these elements over here, but it creates an emotional effect for visitors. Their feedback tells us that we are on the right track.


What have been the key achievements during the park's development?

We raised the quality of our food when we bought a catering service. Our spaghetti bolognese sauce is homemade, as is our ice cream. Belgian people appreciate these things and they are ready to pay a higher price for them. We have a very good reputation for food and this has helped to raise visitor satisfaction levels.

Year-pass sales are increasing every year. With two visits, people have amortized their investment. At the moment we are selling around 200,000 year passes.

The park’s geographical offerings have helped to increase our popularity. For example, our Indonesian project (the Kingdom of Ganesha) is dedicated to the Asian elephant. These fascinating mammals are the perfect carrier to present mythologies and beliefs to our public. Because the elephants have a 5,000-year-old history in Asian culture, we are able to show visitors all kinds of artistic ways that they have been depicted.

When we construct our animal enclosures, we avoid showing steel and concrete, so that visitors never leave the dream bubble. We use natural elements to achieve a harmonious result. Using soft borders like water and rocks is challenging because you still have to ensure the security of your visitors and animals, but it creates a much more positive public perception. It has helped to give us the reputation we have now and it has seen us elected as the best zoological garden of the Benelux.


What’s the key to Pairi Daiza’s success?

Our passion. We have a diverse team of collaborators and everybody is extremely passionate about what they're doing, which doesn’t always make decision making easy! There are painful phases in every project, but what keeps everybody on track is this gut feeling that we're doing the right thing and that the end result will be something unique.


Juliana Gilling is a contributing editor for IAAPA’s Funworld magazine, covering the EMEA attractions industry. Contact her at julianagilling@gmail.com.