The park has been dogged by recent financial woes and forced to scrap some popular attractions and look at cutting staff.
But after a deal was finally announced yesterday – five years after negotiations began – bosses said they hoped for a surge in numbers.
The agreement was signed at Lancaster House in London, meaning Edinburgh Zoo will look after Tian Tian and Yangguang – the first giant pandas to come to Britain in 17 years
The agreement was signed by Donald Emslie, chairman of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), which owns Edinburgh Zoo, and the Chinese Wildlife Conservation Association (CWCA).
It was witnessed by Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, and Vice Premier of China, Li Keqiang.
It is not known when they will arrive.
But after recording poorer than hoped for visitor figures for 2010 it is thought that the arrival of the giant pandas will provide a much-needed boost for the Edinburgh attraction.
In October the zoo culled two healthy, endangered Red River Hog piglets, Sammi and Becca, because they were “surplus to requirement.”
And later in the same month the zoo was forced to close down its popular Rainbow Landings parrot display to save costs.
The £350,000 enclosure allowed visitors to hold and feed dozens of Rainbow Lorikeets.
Magnus Fullerton, vice-chairman of the Board of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, said: “Visitor numbers are very hard to predict.
“We would expect an iconic species like the giant panda will attract visitors as we have seen in other zoos.
“You find that foreign visitors don’t go in mass to other zoos unless there is a big iconic species.
“Last year around two percent of visitors to the zoo were European.”
He added: “We would hope to see an increase in those numbers.”
But another zoo insider said that it is hoped visitor numbers will as much as “double” when the animals arrive
In 2010 zoo bosses had hoped to see visitor numbers increase to 632,000 but only around 570,000 walked through the gates.
It is thought that the zoo has also made plans to axe a quarter of its 200 full-time staff.
Mr Fullerton added: “All parks and visitor attractions have seen the same thing.
“We have been planning for giant pandas for five years and not just since the economic downturn.
“It will undoubtedly help with some of those problems and will have an impact.”
The introduction of pandas to Adelaide Zoo saw visitor numbers soar by 70 per cent and Taipei Zoo in Taiwan recorded increases of half a million visitors in 2009.
Edinburgh Zoo will become one of only a handful of zoos in the western hemisphere and the only institution in the UK, to care for giant pandas.
It will join the four zoos in North America that currently house them, with others in Mexico City, Berlin, Vienna and Madrid.
She added: “Edinburgh Zoo has a world-leading reputation for animal conservation and I am delighted that Scotland has been chosen to take part in China’s breeding programme for giant pandas.
“The agreement gives Scotland an important role in securing the future of this endangered species. As well as supporting China’s work to protect these animals, the arrival of the pandas is expected to bring significant economic benefits for Scotland in terms of tourism, attracting hundreds of thousands of additional visitors to the zoo.”
Edinburgh Zoo had to demonstrate that it had the commitment and expertise to care for the species.
His Excellency Mr Liu Xiaoming, Ambassador of China to the UK said: “Pandas are a Chinese national treasure. This historical agreement is a gift to the people of the UK from China. It will represent an important symbol of our friendship and will bring our two people closer together.”
Tian Tian and Yangguang are a breeding pair and will only be together for three days before being kept in separate enclosures.
They are to stay in the old gorilla enclosure and internal and external viewing points will be possible for visitors.
The two pandas are eight-years-old and have bred before but not together.
They will only be together for three days before being separated.
On average there is a 5-6 month gestation period and panda’s can have anything from one to four babies.
As the panda’s will remain the property of China it is not known how long they will be at the zoo for.
But the decision has not been well accepted throughout the country as animal rights campaigners say that efforts should be focussed on preserving the natural habitat of pandas and not breeding them in captivity.
Will Travers, CEO of the Born Free Foundation, said: “I am dismayed that this thoroughly misguided project seems to be moving forward. I can see little or no material benefit that this project can bring in situ giant panda conservation in China.
“There are approximately 2,000 giant pandas in China and, in my view, the main issue regarding their future conservation is not about whether they can be successfully bred in western zoos but about whether they can be adequately protected in significant areas of wild habitat that are needed for panda to exist in the wild.
“We, at Born Free and, I am sure, many others, would like to see the exact terms of the agreement that has been signed today at Lancaster House in London. We most certainly hold the UK government, the Chinese government and Edinburgh Zoo accountable for what happens to these animals.”
Ross Minett, science and research manager (Animal Sentience & Behaviour) at OneKind, added:“In this day and age, the prospect of two animals being transported from their homeland across the world so that the paying public in Scotland can see them in a cage in a zoo raises serious animal welfare concerns and is outlandish.
“If conservation and breeding of pandas is the paramount concern then it would be far more sensible to see the money being invested in good wildlife reserves in China.
“The main reason that pandas are an endangered species in the wild is because of the destruction of their habitat – the temperate bamboo forests.”