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French theme park goes au naturel

By Matthew Knight for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Europe's first theme park devoted to plant life opened in France on weekend
  • Among the gardens are hi-tech interactive displays and attractions
  • $112 million park needs to pull in around 250,000 visitors a year to turn a profit
  • Tourism expert: "I think the jury is still out on environmental theme parks"
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(CNN) -- The construction of a theme park in France's Loire Valley might cause the most benign environmentalist's strident tendencies to be awakened.

But they needn't fear. Log flumes, roller coasters and concrete castles are not on the agenda at Terra Botanica, a brand new environmental theme park near Angers, in the country's north-west.

The region, traditionally known as "The Garden of France" -- thanks to a horticultural heritage stretching back centuries -- is now home to an 11-hectare site devoted entirely to the enjoyment of the natural world.

First conceived 12 years ago, construction began a little over two years ago on a site formerly housing a golf course and an airport.

Its owners say that Terra Botanica is Europe's first theme park devoted to plant life.

The park, which opened at the weekend, was designed by the French landscape architect Thierry Huau and incorporates four themes which address all aspects of plant life from historical and geographical to scientific and aesthetic.

Among the thousands of flowers, shrubs, vines and trees on show, visitors are also able to immerse themselves in dozens of interactive attractions designed educate and entertain.

Nicolas Moulin, director of Terra Botanica, is particularly proud of the botanical odyssey which takes visitors on a voyage across of the Atlantic in search of the New World, alongside Alexander von Humbolt, the famous 18th Century naturalist.

"Visitors start the journey in a theater with 4-D effects and finish their expedition exploring a real-life greenhouse," Moulin told CNN.

The €83 million ($112 million) park needs to pull in around 250,000 visitors a year to turn a profit.

Professor John Lennon, a tourism expert from the UK's Glasgow Caledonian University welcomed the park's opening but also sounded a note of caution.

"It's encouraging that a theme park is being developed with these messages. They kind of have the moral high ground of tourism development at the moment. But I think the jury is still out on environmental theme parks," Lennon told CNN.

Lennon points to the financial failure of the UK's Earth Center in Doncaster, which opened to great fanfare in 1999 but closed just five years later due to low visitor numbers.

He also questions why established amusement park operators like Disney and Merlin haven't entered the environmental fray.

Furthermore Lennon is curious as to whether France needs an amusement park of this type.

"France is the number one tourist destination worldwide with fine foods, wine, heritage, Alps, coasts, great countryside -- it's a lifestyle we all want to buy into," he said.

What, wonders Lennon, is it about Terra Botanica that makes it so different from the France tourists already experience?

Moulin would point to their dedication to telling the story of so many plants in a way that is entertaining, informative and structured.

After all, this hasn't hurt one of the UK's best known environmental visitor centers. The Eden Project in southwest England has attracted over 10 million visitors since it opened in 2000.

So what's the secret of its success?

The center's chief executive Tim Smit told CNN: "Our attitude is simple and infuses everything we do. Come here and remember our connection to nature and our dependence on it for all we need.

"Our work with communities across the country and abroad shows how quickly change can be made to happen when people work together and understand that 'sharing' makes us more than the sum of our parts."

No doubt, this is something that Moulin and his 30-strong team of staff at France's newest attraction will hope to emulate over the coming months and years.