(BERLIN-AFP) - Soaring above a pine forest in the heart of former communist East Germany, a huge hangar built to house airships on an old Soviet airbase has been transformed into a popular, if unlikely, tropical getaway.
As the imaginative brainchild of a Malaysian businessman, Tropical Islands has become a haven for Berliners seeking out balmy temperatures when the mercury outside plummets, or even when it doesn't -- and without need of an airplane.
But in the 10 years since opening, the draw of its pools, beach, waterfalls, imported plants and Asia-inspired temples and water features has stretched far beyond the immediate flat landscape of Brandenburg state, which surrounds Berlin.
The imposing resort attracts about two million visitors a year, the majority of them German, spokesman Patrick Kastner told AFP, adding however that people also travelled from Poland and the Czech Republic to soak up the tropical atmosphere.
Some 200 million euros ($270 million) has been ploughed into the resort over the last decade, he added, a far cry from the initial 15 million euros that the businessman, Colin Au, paid for the hangar to house his then budding idea based on a cruise ship.
At the time, Au headed a cruise company and was travelling in Germany on business when he complained to his financial adviser about the cold, grey November weather.
"His adviser told him about this gigantic hangar. They both went to see it and said to themselves 'Okay, we're going to apply the principle of a cruise ship here except that instead of taking people far away to the tropics, it's the tropics which will come here'," Kastner said.
"That was the birth of Tropical Islands," he said.
- Small slice of Asia -
Standing taller than Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the resort is maintained at a pleasant 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) for frolicking in its tropical forest or on the long sandy beach in the 6.6-hectare (16-acre) domed park, roughly the size of eight football pitches.
Back then, the dome on a disused airfield was threatening to become a symbol of economic failure following Germany's reunification after being built as a giant hangar for a company that produced gas-filled airships capable of carrying heavy freight over long distances.
But the company, CargoLifter, went bust in 2002.
In its new reincarnation, it now houses more than 60,000 plants brought by container from Asia, while visitors can splash down water slides into large crystalline pools, and a little slice of Cambodia, Bali or Thailand has been re-created with replica temples and houses.
While still holding a minority share, Au has since stepped back, with Malaysian leisure and real estate company Tanjong now holding the majority share in Tropical Islands.
Kastner, initially reluctant to divulge the resort's financial results, speaks when pressed on the matter of "an operating profit which is in the millions" after three initial "difficult" years.
Today, the centre, whose site is still dotted with abandoned shelters and ramshackle buildings from the days when it was an airfield, employs about 500 staff.
The entry price is 34.50 euros ($47), plus extras. "It's expensive but it's worth it," enthuses 29-year-old Berlin mum Jessica, who, with her two children is tucking into sandwiches they have brought with them.
"It's the fourth time we've come and we'll be back," she said.
Few of the swimsuit-clad visitors may be aware that on the spot where they now enjoy a German-style tropical experience sipping exotic cocktails, there was once a Nazi Luftwaffe airbase, followed, after the war, by a base for Soviet Mig-27s until the fall of the Wall in 1989.
However, today, it's the troupe that provides the evening entertainment that comes from Russia.
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