Two women look at Taiko, a polar bear playing in its pond, from their lodge in the zoo of the French western city of La Fleche (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)
By Patrick Baert
Forget trekking to the Arctic. French tourists are opting for the luxury way to spend the night with a polar bear: beside a log fire not far from home.
The only thing on ice is the champagne.
Since it launched “A night at home with the bear” in October, La Fleche zoo in western France has booked up its comfy lodge overlooking Taiko the polar bear’s enclosure until the end of 2015.
Safari-style lodges are part of a strategy by French animal parks to update ageing structures and attract new visitors. They follow a worldwide trend, from an Africa-themed resort at a zoo in Canberra, Australia, to party nights at zoos from London to Los Angeles.
A man looks at Taiko, a polar bear playing in its pond, from his lodge in the zoo of the French western city of La Fleche (AFP Photo/Jean-Francois Monier)
La Fleche zoo, which opened in 1946, was in need of boost when it opened its first lodge in 2013.
Visitor numbers soon increased and the park now has eight lodges.
Their style reflects the architecture of areas where the neighbouring animals would normally reside: Arctic lodges with log fires for observing polar bears, Asian-style lodges surrounded by bamboo and rice-paddies for tiger-watching.
With immense bay windows, the three-star, six-person polar bear lodge costs at least 200 euros (250 dollars) per adult per night.
A polar bear plays with a pylon during celebrations marking its first birthday in an enclosure at Tierpark Hellabrunn zoo in Munich. (Michaela Rehle/Reuters)
Visitors can observe Taiko and another polar bear, Katinka, swimming underwater through a massive window connected to the comfortable parental suite.
Champagne and a gastronomic dinner are on the menu, while the howls of Arctic wolves ring out through the night.
"The idea is that visitors feel like they’re in a cocoon suspended in time, totally immersed in the animal environment," said the zoo’s owner Stephane Da Cunha.
Six other lodges are due to open by 2016, ahead of “a big African savannah project”, to include a hotel complex for business customers.
The project — which cost more than 300,000 euros ($370,000) for the most luxurious polar bear section alone — should be profitable within several years since the accommodation is fully booked, Da Cunha said.
Other French zoos are trying similar initiatives, including Cerza, in western France, and Sainte-Croix, in the northeast, which houses European animals.
Visitors to Sainte-Croix must wait almost one and a half years to make a reservation for its most expensive lodge near the wolf enclosure, said spokesman Clement Leroux.
Le Pal zoo, in southern France, will increase its lodges from 24 to 31 in 2015. “There’s an extremely strong demand,” said its director, Arnaud Bennet.
Zoos have to renovate to keep up with a fickle public, said Sophie Huberson, from the national union of leisure, amusement and cultural spaces.
All zoos which have created unusual lodgings have seen their takings rise, Huberson said.
"They’ll all end up following this model, which lets them increase their capacity to invest," she said. "Those which don’t evolve will see their visitor numbers drop."
Some zoos, like the main zoo in Paris, have invested in more natural and spacious surroundings in a bid to attract more visitors.
They aim to extend the time visitors stay, so they eat at on-site restaurants and buy souvenirs, in an economic model similar to that of theme parks, Huberson said.
France’s top zoo followed a slightly different formula to success, with huge hotels outside the park. Beauval, in northern France, has more than one million visitors annually and 6,000 animals.
The zoo opened its first hotel, outside the site, in 2008. It will open a third next year, with a China theme in reference to its pandas. The whole complex will have 900 bedrooms.
"They told us it wouldn’t work," said managing director Rodolphe Delordhe.
"Today, people are spending their holidays here."