ADELAIDE - Panda-mania is coming to Adelaide.
It could be bigger than Lance Armstrong's comeback to professional cycling in the state earlier this year and even the appearance of Tiger Woods at golf's Australian Masters.
The arrival of two giant pandas at the Adelaide Zoo this weekend is expected to provide a A$600 million ($775.09m) boost to the local economy over the next 10 years, including millions in tourism, new jobs and merchandising.
But it is also a gesture of major significance, at a time when relations between Australia and China are under stress.
More importantly, it will focus international attention on Adelaide for months, if not years, local officials say.
And if a panda baby results from local breeding efforts, which could be as early as 2011 if all goes well, then international interest will simply "explode".
Not bad for a couple of cute black and white bears who spend most of their day either eating or sleeping.
Four-year-old Wang Wang and three-year-old Funi are due to arrive in Adelaide on Saturday after the trip from their home at the Panda Protection and Research Centre at Ya'an.
Travelling with them will be Chinese keepers and vets as well as Adelaide Zoo keepers who have been getting to know the animals over the past few weeks.
They will spend the next month in quarantine, ensconced inside a new $8 million panda enclosure which includes some innovative features, such as refrigerated rocks, to ensure the couple can handle the heat of an Australian summer.
Their first public appearance comes on December 13, when Governor-General Quentin Bryce officially opens their new home.
According to Adelaide Zoo director Chris West, the importance of the agreement to send two Pandas to Adelaide cannot be understated.
Only 1600 remain in the wild in China with another 200 in breeding centres.
But there are only 30 outside China and, until now, none in the southern hemisphere.
"China regards them as a national treasure," Dr West says.
"So for Adelaide to get two is a major gesture of friendship."
It could also go some way towards soothing recent tensions between the two countries.
Beijing has been upset over Australian government restrictions on Chinese investment in mining while the arrest of an Australian mining executive has also caused problems.
China's communist government has also protested to Australia over a recent visit there by Rebiya Kadeer, a US-based ethnic Uighur Muslim from China's west whom Beijing brands a terrorist.
Wang Wang and Funi's journey to Australia actually began several years ago, at the instigation of former foreign minister Alexander Downer, whose grandfather was the first director of the Adelaide Zoo.
Mr Downer was in a position to lobby the Chinese directly and his efforts eventually led to then Prime Minister John Howard signing a formal agreement with China's President Hu Jintao at the Apec meeting in Sydney in 2007.
Born at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, Wang Wang was aged two at the time, and his intended partner Funi just one.
But by the time they arrive in Adelaide they will both be of breeding age, although successful consummation remains a tricky business.
Pandas usually mate between March and May, but females have a receptive period of only about four days.
Efforts to increase their numbers have also been hindered by their habit of raising just one cub at a time, largely because they need undivided attention and care.
Habitat destruction has affected the decline of the species. Notoriously fussy eaters, they consume massive amounts of bamboo each day, but eat only a small number of varieties.
The giant panda is believed to have made its first appearance during the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene periods, perhaps no more than two to three million years ago.
They have been credited with mystical powers, capable of warding off natural disasters and exorcising evil spirits.
Panda skins appear scattered throughout Chinese imperial records, as gifts or tributes on great occasions of state.
But the panda was totally unknown outside China until the declining Qing Dynasty slowly opened its doors to trade towards the end of the 19th century.
Today, giant pandas are found only in the dense bamboo and coniferous mountains of central China.
They occupy six small forest fragments in isolated areas of the north and central portions of the Sichuan Province, in the mountains bordering the southernmost part of Gansu Province and in the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province.
They are not the world's most endangered species but are often regarded as the ambassador animal for all those close to extinction, Dr West says.
As such, he knows they will draw big crowds, especially among international tourists.
Experience from other zoos that have pandas suggests attendances in Adelaide could jump by as much as 70 per cent.
To cater for the likely demand Adelaide Zoo will ask all visitors to book tickets, either online or by phone, at least for the next few months.
And, depending on the size of the crowd on any given day, each visitor's panda experience could last for just 15 minutes.
There will also be a host of panda merchandise, some officially endorsed and some not, while the impending arrival of the animals has sparked a rise in corporate sponsorships, notwithstanding the difficulties posed by the global economic downturn.
Zoos SA president Heather Caddick says the worldwide interest in two pandas that do little other than eat and sleep is easy to explain.
"Pandas really are the world's most recognised and loved endangered animal," she says.
"If you watch them you can see why, they're natural comics. You could really spend hours just watching them.
"There's something enigmatic about them."
But as for panda-mania, or the panda-monium that may result, some might say it's almost too much to bear.
ADELAIDE - Panda-mania is coming to Adelaide.