World Expositions Can Benefit or Haunt Host Cities

PARIS — Few  to Disneyland have a world exposition on their minds as they embark on the 15-minute “It’s a Small World” boat ride. But it was for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, as the expo was known, that Walt Disney designed the ride.
The Eiffel Tower and the Atomium in Brussels are other legacies of the world expos that have showcased technology, architecture and culture every five years since London’s inaugural Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851.
Today, though, hosting an expo means much more than buildings. Bidders count on an economic boost and a higher international profile as benefits from staging the six-month event. “An expo marks a certain ‘coming of age’ for a city,” Urso Chappell, an expo historian, said. “It can aid a city’s physical redevelopment as well as the nation’s image abroad.”
Jobs are created as large construction projects get under way, and international and local tourism increases, a boon to restaurants, hotels, car rental agencies and other businesses.Dubai, for instance, which is in the running for host of the 2020 expo, expects more than 25 million visitors and 270,000 new jobs if it wins.
At the same time, expo organizers have to balance cost and legacy.
The Shanghai World Expo 2010, for example, cost the equivalent of $4.2 billion, according to government figures. But the Chinese news media have reported that the actual cost of staging the event was more than $50 billion — exceeding what was spent on the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
The Shanghai Expo has also left a number of buildings that proved useless after the event and were abandoned. Some, like Germany’s pavilion, were razed.
The hosts of the next world expo, which will be in Milan in 2015, hope to avoid the same fate by “organizing a totally sustainable event and building the country pavilions with eco-friendly materials which, if necessary, can be easily dismantled at the end,” said Giuseppe Sala, chief executive of Expo 2015, which is developing the event.
One of the few things that will remain after the Milan Expo will be a large park. The organizers say plans call for 56 percent of the site to remain “green” after the event. At $1.7 billion, the projected investment by the Milan Expo would also be much smaller than Shanghai’s.
With a reasonable budget and a sound legacy plan, a world’s fair can become a transformative opportunity for a city, and even for a country, expo officials say.
“For the hosts, expos are a key part of a strategic plan for urban development and act as catalysts for accelerating infrastructural transformations,” said Vicente Gonzalez Loscertales, secretary general of the Bureau of International Expositions in Paris, which chooses the host cities and supervises the events. “At the same time, the expo has more intangible but equally powerful impacts on the branding of the city and of the country, and on their international image.”
It is exactly that “unique P.R. opportunity,” as Mr. Gonzalez Loscertales calls the expo, that the 2020 bidders — in addition to Dubai, Izmir, Turkey; São Paulo, Brazil; and Yekaterinburg, Russia, are seeking the event — hope to exploit.
Dubai, which would be the first host of a world’s fair in the Middle East, has emerged as the front-runner, offering the most financial and governmental support. Political tensions in Russia, most recently over what is viewed as an antigay law, and in Turkey could hurt the chances of Yekaterinburg and Izmir. São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere, is seen as least likely to succeed when the 100 or so delegates of the exposition bureau’s General Assembly vote in November, people with knowledge of the bidding said.
The fact that all of the 2020 bidders come from emerging markets is indicative of the changing landscape of international relations. More nations are using such global events to elbow their way onto the world stage. “Shanghai 2010 is a perfect example of an expo held to show that a country is an important international player,” Mr. Chappell said.
Held on the heels of Beijing’s grandiose 2008 Summer Olympics, the expo was the most heavily attended in history, with a record 246 participating countries and organizations and 73 million visitors.
Tjaco Walvis, a branding specialist who researched the impact of previous expos, said an expo “helps to put the organizing city on the mental world map.”
Sometimes, though, the mark it leaves can become a stain. The 1984 Louisiana World Exposition in New Orleans, which had low attendance and financing problems, was forced to declare bankruptcy. It managed to stay open until its closing day only because the United States government provided financial support.
And while expo officials count urban development as a major benefit of hosting, it comes at a cost. In the preparations for the Shanghai World Expo, Chinese authorities demolished thousands of homes and displaced 18,000 families, according to Amnesty International, a human rights group.
Still, if an expo proves a success, the organizers can count on media coverage and international tourism to enhance the host’s image at home and abroad. And countries that participate may benefit as well.
The Dutch pavilion at Expo 2000 in Hanover, Germany, generated about 350 million euros, or $468 million, in indirect long-term economic benefits for the Netherlands, more than 10 times the nation’s investment, according to research by Mr. Walvis, the brand specialist.
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