Dubai's Expo follows a legacy that includes the Eiffel Tower and Disney's Small World

Expo expert gives his verdict on what we might expect in 2021

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When it comes to Expo experts, there is probably no one more qualified for the job than Urso Chappell.

At the age of 15, he went to the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee, and was hooked.

Nearly 40 years later, he is looking forward to his 12th Expo after a journey that has taken him from Astana to Vancouver, via Milan and Shanghai.

Known as “the Expo historian”, he is uniquely equipped to assess the likely effect Expo 2020 will have on Dubai and the UAE, both during the event and after.

There is that longer term benefit to establishing your city as a city that's important

One of the first lessons, he says, is to expect the unexpected – but in a good way.

“People can experience cultures they’re not necessarily as familiar with and lots of interesting things can happen,” he said.

“One of the lessons I learnt working at Expo 2015 in Milan was that no matter how much you plan a space to behave the way you want it to, people will use it for their own needs.

Expo historian Urso Chappell during his time at the 2015 world's fair in Milan. Courtesy: Urso Chappell
Expo historian Urso Chappell during his time at the 2015 world's fair in Milan. Courtesy: Urso Chappell

“Amazing interactions can happen, and in ways that you had never previously expected.

"It becomes a little experimental world on a very small scale that one hopes people bring home with them and continue that optimism and openness to other cultures and other people.”

The practical benefits for the host country can take many forms.

Often, it is major infrastructure projects or land regeneration.

As in Dubai, Shanghai 2010 resulted in a major expansion of the Metro system.

The Eiffel Tower was originally the gateway to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris.

The It's a Small World ride at several Walt Disney Parks and Resorts was first created for the New York World's Fair in 1964.

Expo 86 in Vancouver was held “on a blighted ignored side of downtown that wasn’t really being used, and now its completely revitalised and one of the most sought-after neighbourhoods,” Mr Chappell said.

Governments have different reasons for hosting an Expo.

“In China, there was clearly an infrastructure need, and a country like the United Arab Emirates is trying to show themselves on the world stage as a country of import, especially Dubai as a city of import,” Mr Chappell said.

Even when an Expo loses money, as several have, the long-term benefits can be spectacular.

Vancouver only covered its costs by selling lottery tickets, but eventually went on to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.

“They could never imagine hosting the Winter Olympics if they hadn’t hosted the Expo just 24 years earlier,” Mr Chappell said.

“So there is that longer-term benefit to establishing your city as a city that’s important. It’s economically vital, and that has a sort of gravitas to it.”

There is certainly no shortage of cities wanting to host an Expo, with Buenos Aires following Dubai in 2023 and Osaka two years later.

In its failed bid for 2020, San Jose, at the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, estimated winning the event would increase economic activity in the region by a staggering $5.6 billion (Dh20.56bn).

“The potential increase in employment surrounding the event would be on the order of 42,000 year-long, full-time jobs. This increase in output and employment would likely yield a benefit to state and local coffers of $440 million,” the report concluded.

Delay fails to dampen spirits ahead of first Expo in the Middle East:

Before Covid-19 and the resulting postponement, Dubai estimated that Expo 2020 would produce revenue of between $25bn and $35bn, along with 200,000 jobs and millions of visitors.

Dubai is also unusual In the scope of the countries it invited to take part, including Israel, when at the time the UAE had yet to establish diplomatic relations.

With such a large foreign-born population, the audience will also be the most diverse.

This opportunities for participating countries are another important aspect Expos.

A study by the branding specialist Tjaco Walvis of Expo 2000 in Hanover found that while the Netherlands pavilion cost the equivalent of Dh152m, it created ten times that amount for the Dutch economy in potential revenue.

But there are other benefits, too. Expos are a chance to project soft power, not only  for the host, but also for those taking part.

“Maybe you don’t think of Moldova every day, but Moldova had its own separate pavilion in Milan 2015 and made a big splash, as did Angola,” said Mr Chappell.

“It was really making a statement on behalf of the country, that we are as important as France, England, China, Russia, Australia, countries like that, that are a little more established.”

For some hosts, he compares hosting an Expo with throwing a party.

“You probably won’t make money at the party. But it gives you an excuse to clean up the house. It gives you an excuse to buy new china. It gives an excuse to go ‘OK, I’ve reached a certain level’.”

It also creates something you cannot put a price on, he says, with memories that can last for generations.

“Whenever I go to Montreal, people always talk about Expo 67 as being an important event in their life.

"And even when you go to places like Chicago, they still talk about 1893 as if it happened last year. It’s still very much baked into the concept of the city and the region.”

For the moment, his disappointment at not heading to Dubai next month is more than matched by the anticipation of what next year might bring.

“Each Expo is its own unique thing,” he said. “And even the organisers don’t necessarily know what it’s going to be until after the first day.”

The dazzling pavilions set to take centre stage at Expo 2020 Dubai: