Entrepreneur brings tropical fun and sun to balmy Berlin

Marc Young

A Malaysian is creating beaches and a rainforest in a disused zeppelin hangar

Germans hoping to flee Central Europe's dreary winter weather this year will soon be able trade plane tickets for train passes, after the world's first tropical rainforest theme park opens outside Berlin.

Betting that sun-crazy Germans will jump at the chance to swap cold rain for a balmy rainforest, Malaysian entrepreneur Colin Au has spent 70 million euros ($720 million) converting a massive zeppelin hangar 60km from the German capital into a jungle paradise.

'Germans love to travel to warmer places since the weather here can be pretty awful,' Mr Au said.

'Here they can find warmth year round.'

Even in the depths of winter, visitors to Mr Au's Tropical Islands park will be able relax on white sandy beaches underneath swaying palm trees inside a gigantic silver dome.

Located on what was once a Soviet airbase, the 360-metre-long, 107-metre-high structure was originally built to house the modern commercial airships of the failed zeppelin maker, CargoLifter.

But when the park opens later this month, the dome will have been be transformed into a home for thousands of exotic plants, heated lagoons and cruise ship-like entertainment.

Air temperatures will be a constant 28 degrees Celsius and the water in the pools 30 degrees.

Though visitors will be protected from nature's harshest elements, a special roof will let in nearly 100 per cent of the sun's rays, burning those foolish enough not to use sunscreen.

However, Mr Au, a Singapore-based Harvard MBA graduate, likes to point out the tropical wonderland isn't only about offering frostbitten Europeans refuge from their own climate.

'The Germans don't just want to have fun. They like to learn things, so we've made the place educational as well,' Mr Au said.

Accordingly, the park will also have several types of 'villages' from tropical cultures, including those of Borneo, the Congo and the Amazon.

Each area has traditional structures created by regional artisans with materials from the places they represent.

With Christmas time often a grey and nasty affair throughout much of Germany, Mr Au and his partners at the Malaysian conglomerate Tanjong PLC are counting on the Teutonic yearning for sun and fun to make the jungle resort a success.

That could pave the way to make it 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. Mr Au and Tanjong purchased it in insolvency proceedings last year for a measly 17.5 million euros - a fraction of what it cost CargoLifter.

The project is a godsend for the government of the depressed eastern German state of Brandenburg, which was relieved to find investors with a viable concept for the airship hangar.

With unemployment in the region near 20 per cent, the park will create around 500 desperately needed jobs. But locals from the nearby village of Brand are sceptical after seeing both the Soviet air force and the zeppelin maker leave.

'Of course we all hope it's a success, but we've been burned before,' said Carola Seidenfeudel, who runs a snack shop near Brand's tiny railway station.

'We had to shut this stand once before, after CargoLifter went bust.'