by James Ogul
World’s fairs are global destinations for millions of people to share ideas, showcase innovation, encourage collaboration and celebrate human ingenuity.
The next major, six-month, BIE-sanctioned world’s fair is Expo 2020 Dubai. (The six-month expos are held every five years. The last one was Milan 2015.)
Each expo is unique in ways that reflect the region, the theme and the times, but Dubai 2020 stands out sharply in an unprecedented manner because of its unique attendance model. Organizers project attendance at 25 million between opening day on 20 October 2020, and closing day on 10 April 2021. The 25 million figure is in line with past expos – what’s never been done before is having 70% of the attendance come from outside the host country. This is what Dubai 2020 organizers are counting on. If they succeed, it will constitute the largest proportion of international visitors to a world expo in the history of world expos.
Other major world’s fairs this century include Hanover 2000 (Germany), Aichi 2005 (Japan), Shanghai 2010 and Milan 2015. Their combined attendance was some 143 million. Although all Expos are marketed to – and attract – many international visitors, the greater share of the attendance is local. In the case of Shanghai 2010, for example, only 20% of visitation was from abroad. In contrast, Dubai 2020 organizers expect 17.5M of the total anticipated 25M to come from abroad, a whopping 70%.
Dubai 2020 will be the first world’s fair held in the Middle East, and its location in the UAE points to the need for its unusual attendance model. In the case of Shanghai 2010, China could rely on its vast population for attendance. Dubai has a much lower population base to draw upon – not just for the Expo but for all of its destination attractions. Nonetheless, in recent years the UAE has seen aggressive development of major theme parks and retail centers; these, too must rely heavily on overseas visitation.
So what is the likelihood that Dubai Expo 2020 can achieve this 70% attendance from abroad goal? I asked Nick Winslow, a highly regarded industry expert in themed attractions and world expos, and a feasibility specialist.
Winslow said, “The trick for Dubai will be to: (1) Have a sufficiently attractive product and season pass program to generate repeat attendance from the local market; (2) convert a relatively high percentage of transit passengers through the Dubai Airport to short-stay, Expo guests.”
Winslow pointed to the numbers for Astana Expo 2017, a smaller, three-month world’s fair in Kazakstan that welcomed its three millionth visitor in late August (closing day for Astana 2017 is September 10; the three-month expos are scheduled in between the larger events). “I find the Astana figures encouraging for Dubai,” he said. “The idea of an Expo is new to the region and will generate a lot of curiosity visits.”
What about the fact that the new theme parks in Dubai are reported to have opened to lower-than-expected visitation? Winslow remains optimistic. “Many of us thought the theme park gambit would prove problematic for the region,” he said. “More is not necessarily better. Quality counts. It takes years to ramp up to destination level numbers. Disney and Universal are the big dogs in the business – particularly the destination park component – and they are not in the UAE. I think a lot of people are going to lose a lot of money in the park business, but I don’t think this will impact Dubai Expo.”
So much will depend on tourism. What do the tourism statistics show? According to Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce marketing (DTCM), Dubai recorded a 10.6 per cent increase in overnight visitors in the first half of 2017, welcoming 8.06 million overnight visitors. During that six-month period, Dubai reached 678 hotels with 104,138 rooms, an increase of 5 per cent year-on-year. DTCM says the Emirate is aiming to attract 20 million visitors a year by 2020. But that’s 20 million a year, and the Expo lasts only half a year.
Achieving the 17.5M foreign attendance still appears to be a challenge, but the Dubai 2020 organizers – and Dubai entertainment developers – are already accustomed to doing things differently and taking risks. The cost of Dubai 2020 is an estimated $9 billion, which makes it the most expensive world’s fair ever. The UAE has invested a huge amount banking on an attendance model that has never been tried.
The theme of Expo 2020 Dubai is “Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.” The site will be divided into three sections: Opportunity, Sustainability and Mobility. Each section will have dozens of pavilions where participating countries will display innovative projects under one of those three headlines. More than 180 nations are anticipated to take part and 120 have already privately confirmed their attendance.
This massive undertaking has more than 5,000 people now working on-site and that number will grow to 37,000 by 2019. 180 countries are expected to participate, each designing and constructing their own building on a huge, 1,080-acre site.
Opening day for the Expo in Dubai is October 20, 2020 and the ensuing six months will tell us if the experiment has been successful.