Pope Francis kicks off Milan Expo 2015

Thousands of people turn out for the last full World Expo before Dubai 2020.

The UAE pavilion at the Milan Expo 2015 was a favourite among first-day visitors. Antonio Calanni for The National
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MILAN // Expo 2015 opened on Friday and thousands of visitors thronged the country pavilions at the last World Expo before Dubai Expo 2020.

A light drizzle did nothing to dampen the spirits of visitors from around the world who flocked to the northern Italian city.

After years of planning, the expo expects to attract 20 million visitors and inject €10 billion (Dh41bn) into Milan’s economy.

Pope Francis was among the dignitaries taking part in the opening ceremony. In a video message, he said the event was “a propitious occasion to globalise solidarity”.

More than 140 countries are taking part in the expo, which features 1.1 million square metres of exhibition space.

There were fewer people on Friday than at the opening of the Shanghai Expo in 2010, in keeping with the more modest ambitions of the Milanese organisers.

The Chinese expo drew 73 million visitors.

The smaller numbers made for a better experience, with little evidence of the hours-long queues at the Shanghai expo.

Milan has been taken over by expo fever, tuning in to the theme Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

In the main square, an orchestra played, flags of participating countriess – the UAE among them – lined the streets and billboards announced the start of the event.

The logo of the Milan Expo is plastered on everything, including street kiosks, underground advertising boards, official cars and telecommunications towers, as organisers hope for a trouble-free expo after a sometimes difficult run-up to the event.

In a preview of the expo in Dubai, Milan has been preparing a vast building site for the expo to its north-west since 2011.

Work on the scores of national pavilions, including the UAE’s shimmering sand dune creation, began in earnest last year.

The city has added more stations to its underground network, redeveloped large areas of land and laid on high-speed train services for the event.

However, the scale of the development is smaller than that of the Shanghai expo, for which an airport terminal was built, an area of land close to the city centre was transformed and the subway network expanded.

In addition, a corruption scandal in Milan last year led to the arrest of a string of officials, and reportedly delayed some of the building projects. There were reports of work exceeding budget.

That led to protests about the scale of investment in the project, with about €1.45 billion spent on the expo site. That partly explains why 2,600 extra policemen will be deployed during the event.

On the opening day the officers were called into action, as two cars were reportedly torched by protesters, and police used tear gas to try to quell the unrest.

In the expo, visitors faced airport-style security before they could enter.

Local residents have very mixed views on the benefits and disadvantages arising from the event.

“The buildings are beautiful. I think it’s good for the economy, and every country can show its food and its wellness,” said Raffaela Scicchitano, 32.

Lidia Giammarrusti, 30, a local government worker, said public funds spent on the event would have been better used elsewhere.

“I think we’ve used too much money on something that is not fundamental, it is using public money to build something that is not important,” she said.

Furthermore, the longer-term consequences remain unclear. Finding productive uses for former expo sites has not always been easy. That may help to explain why there were no bids for a tender last year for the redevelopment of the site once the event is completed.

However, Shanghai, which hosted the event with no expense spared, has shown that there can be positive results.

Public demand was such that after the end of the Shanghai expo some of the pavilions reopened to visitors, while the UAE’s dramatic, prize-winning pavilion, which drew about 2 million visitors, was dismantled and rebuilt in Abu Dhabi.

Other pavilions have remained in place and have been given a new lease of life by housing restaurants and other commercial ventures.

The Shanghai World Expo Cultural Centre, where the opening ceremony for the 2010 event was held, has been renamed the Mercedes-Benz Arena and has become a venue for concerts.