'Human zoo' resort planned for Asia

Resort architect and designer Bill Bensley is working on a ‘luxury human zoo’ in southern China. He explains to Carolynne Dear how this unusual concept will work.


The Worldwide China resort will see the animals roam free.


Worldwide China is the most ambitious wildlife conservation concept designer Bill Bensley has worked on to date.


Bensley, founder of the eponymous Bensley Collection of hotels, is a renowned supporter of animal conservation. In 2019 he opened Shinta Mani Wild, a luxury tented resort deep in the Southern Cardamom National Park in Cambodia that provides local people with an alternative income to poaching. It funds its own rangers to patrol and protect the surrounding parkland.


His latest project is being affectionately referred to as ‘The (Luxury) Human Zoo’ and also prioritizes animal welfare. Set in 2,000 acres in Wuchan in southern China’s Guangdong province, it will offer seven luxury hotels and four trains from which visitors can view a variety of animal species.


Bensley was initially approached by a Chinese client to design a zoo with 2,000 hotel rooms. He turned the idea on its head by suggesting 95% of the space be turned over to the animals, while confining the human visitors to ‘viewing cages’ on the remainder of the land.


“It’s my dream that the mistreated animals of over-populated Chinese zoos could run free there,” he said. “We are reassigning non-predator animals from less fortunate roadside zoos to create an ecosystem where they can all thrive.”


Instead of walls and fences, Bensley plans to use natural barriers such as rivers, mountains, forests and hahas (a recessed landscape design) to separate species who might not get along.


The seven hotels will be spread across three zones, representing the three continents of Asia, Africa and Australia.


Asia’s hotels will be operated by Hyatt, Africa’s hotels include The Colony Lodge Hilton and Stone Town Conrad, while Australia will boast Waldorf Astoria World Wild, Fish River Settlement by Waldorf Astoria and Kamp Koala, a tented camp that will be a Shinta Mani Bensley Collection Hotel.


No two hotels will be the same in terms of architecture or experience and all of them will focus on the animals surrounding them.


Inspiration for the Australian hotels comes from the Australia Gold Rush. The original Waldorf Astoria World Wild was opened by William Astor a decade after its New York counterpart, following the burgeoning wealth of the gold mines in what was then a British colony.


The design for the Asian hotels are based on the architecture of Bhutan, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet. Dzong will be a monastic fortress and the plans for Dragon’s Nest are inspired by the legend of seven Bhutanese gods who rode the skies on dragons.


Africa’s two hotels, The Colony Lodge Hilton and Stone Town Stone, are inspired respectively by African termite colonies and the cliff homes of the Dogon and Telem people - ethnic groups from the central plateau region of Mali.


Worldwide will also operate four trains that will wind their way between the continents. Three will be sleeper trains with suites for 40 guests, a restaurant wagon and an observation wagon, and one will be used for day tours.


At each stop people will be able to enjoy an educational, Broadway-style show, explaining different aspects of wildlife and environmental protection and sustainability.


It’s expected Worldwide China will attract up to ten million visitors a year when it opens in 2022.


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