The concept of an international fair in which visitors from foreign countries could come together to exchange culture, ideas and products dates from the Middle Ages in Europe. However, the custom was not officially institutionalized until 1851 in London, when "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations" was held in Hyde Park, attended by representatives of 28 countries.
In 1928, event administration was internationalized by a governing body, the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE). Under the BIE, the fairs, which began as a largely European tradition, gradually became more international in reality. The first non-Western expo was held in Japan in 1970, and was an enormous success, attracting 64.2 million visitors – the standing world record. Nevertheless, the event remains dominated by the West. Non-Western countries will have hosted seven world fairs combined by 2010; the US alone has already hosted 11. No city in Africa, Southeast Asia or South America has ever played host.
A history of insolvency
The excluded may count themselves lucky. World fairs are notorious money pits. The New York World’s Fair in 1964 was run into bankruptcy by legendary megalomaniac urban planner Robert Moses, despite receiving over 50 million visitors. The expo in Hanover in 2000 lost US$1 billion. These are not exceptions; two-thirds of the world expos to date have run at a loss, much of it borne by local taxpayers.
Nor do all expos attain true "international" status. The 2008 expo in Zaragoza, Spain, for example, ended up being a local affair – according to an analysis from exposition consultant JDP Econ, nearly 96.4% of its 5.65 million visitors were Spanish, and the majority of them hailed from Zaragoza itself. Given Beijing’s ongoing crackdown on visas, it seems likely that foreign visitors will comprise a small portion of the total visitors in Shanghai as well.
And then there are the requisite expo pavilions, lavish creative plums for architecture firms, most of which are built for temporary effect. Some are inspiring, others ridiculous, but all are expensive and yet difficult to reuse or resell.
Home field advantage
Is Shanghai likely to fare better or worse than average? During an ongoing global economic swoon, the Shanghai World Expo organizers will spend US$4.19 billion constructing and running the expo, nearly twice what was spent on the Beijing Olympics. Like Robert Moses, organizers are raising money through bond issues; one hopes they will do better than Moses did when it comes to redeeming them.
But China has many advantages over Moses. For one, Beijing controls the direction of media spin; expo organizers will not have to fend off public accusations of corruption and incompetence. Second, this expo doesn’t mind if it attracts foreign guests or not. The Communist Party wants to use the event to gain face, but foreign firms are coming primarily for the domestic audience. This expo isn’t about the world, it’s about China.
Most importantly, however, is that profit is not the goal. Shanghai party chief Yu Zheng-sheng said in an interview that he hopes the Expo breaks even, but could not guarantee it. State media already seem to be cushioning the citizenry for the possibility that it won’t.
So, maybe not profitable. So what? While prestige-driven ziggurats are loved by governments everywhere, the fact remains that a lot of the edifices going up in Shanghai look kind of cool, especially given the amount of green technology in them. To be frank, it is a lot easier to make a case for losing money building expos than holding olympics, which have become professionalized, nationalized, commercialized bastardizations of the original – with a lousy rate of return and no technology spillover. If this particular expo achieves its goal of promoting better-designed cities, we may decide that profit isn’t the only way to judge an expo’s success.