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Bringing the Tropics to Germany

Marc YoungOctober 4, 2004

Long famous for its tasty cucumbers, the Spreewald region just south of Berlin is about to become well-known for rather more exotic flora: Asian investors are converting a zeppelin hangar into a tropical rainforest.

The park will be housed in the world's largest freestanding domeImage: Marc Young

The denizens of Brand, a small community 60 kilometers outside of the German capital Berlin, probably think they've seen it all. During the Cold War their tiny village bordered one of the Soviet Union's largest foreign airbases.

Then came CargoLifter, a company hoping to build commercial heavy-lift zeppelins on the 500 hectare base after the Russians left. That project failed in 2002, but it left behind a colossal 107-meter high airship hangar subsidized by taxpayers.

Until recently, the most exciting thing to do in the area was to take a canoe ride and enjoy some of the Spreewald's popular cucumbers. But Colin Au, a Singapore-based Malaysian multi-millionaire, is aiming to change all that.

This December, Au and his partners at the Malaysian conglomerate Tanjong plc will open a €70-million ($86.8-million) tropical rainforest theme park on the former CargoLifter grounds.

"This concept could work anywhere it is cold, but Germans really love the sun," Au told DW-WORLD, as he pointed out where the hangar's unfinished concrete floor will be transformed into white sandy beaches and heated lagoons.

Thousands of plants

When complete, the 360-meter long silver structure will be refashioned into a unique venue for thousands of tropical plants and cruise ship-like entertainment. The park, known as Tropical Islands, will not only be home to orchids and palm trees; it will also have several types of "villages'' from tropical cultures, including Borneo, Congo and the Amazon.

Cargolifter wird Erlebnispark
A computer simulation of the Tropical Island beach.Image: dpa Zentralbild

In the depths of winter, the air temperature in the park will be a balmy 25 degrees Celsius and the water in the pools an even warmer 30 degrees. A special foil on the south side of the dome -- the world's largest freestanding construction of its kind -- will let in almost 100 percent of the sun's rays.

"If people don't use sunscreen in the summer they'll definitely get sunburn," said Tropical Islands spokeswoman Vivian Kreft.

If successful, the resort in Brand will become the flagship of a chain of similar parks around the world. But none would be built on such a mammoth scale as the dome in Germany. Au and Tanjong were able to snap it up for a measly €17.5 million --a fraction of what it cost CargoLifter -- during insolvency proceedings last year.

Enough visitors?

Despite the proclivity of Germans to flee their own inclement weather, it's still uncertain if the park can really attract over two million visitors a year as planned. Only last week, the Space Center, a comic-themed amusement park in the northern city of Bremen, closed its doors after opening earlier this year.

Cargolifter wird Erlebnispark
The first trees arrive.Image: dpa Zentralbild

But Au dismissed worries that Tropical Islands could run into similar trouble. "Our concept is really much closer to a resort than an amusement park," he said. "It really should be attractive to a broad range of people."

The project certainly was attractive to the government of the depressed eastern German state of Brandenburg, which was relieved to find investors with a viable concept for the CargoLifter hall. With unemployment in Brandenburg near 20 percent, the park will create 500 desperately needed new jobs for the region.

It's the poor economy, though, that could present the biggest risk to the project, since down-on-their-luck Germans have become notoriously stingy in recent years. The amount of disposable income of many eastern Germans will be further cut next year when unpopular reforms reduce the benefits of long-term unemployed to the level of welfare payments.

Original concept is key

Harmut Mertens, an economist at Bankgesellschaft Berlin, admitted the region is going through some tough times, but he remained optimistic Tropical Islands could be a success.

"They seem to have a pretty original concept there,'' Mertens told DW-WORLD. "The problem with the Space Center in Bremen was that they put a lot of emphasis on shopping. That's not the case with the tropics park."

CargoLifter building the dome.Image: HOCHTIEF

The locals from Brand, however, are more cautious after seeing both the Soviets and the zeppelin makers come and go.

"I'm a little skeptical,'' said Carola Seidenfeudel, who runs a snack shop not far from the dome.

She said her family sold drinks and food to CargoLifter employees for years before the company went bankrupt. Only after construction started for Tropical Island this spring did they return to their familiar corner next to Brand's tiny railway station.

"It'll be great if it works, but we've been burned before,'' she said.