Australian Luke Lombe gives his take on the success of Expo’s first two months in action.
The dust has settled and the Expo is in full swing. After the mayhem of the trial week and the contrastingly disappointing turnout for the opening month of May, it seems that everything is now falling into place.
Visitor numbers have been steadily on the rise over the past six weeks and on several occasions managed to break the 500,000 mark. The Australian pavilion has successfully captured around 10 percent of Expo visitors, hosting up to 50,000 per day during the Dragon Boat Festival held in mid-June.
These figures are far more encouraging after what can only be described as a lacklustre beginning. However, many pundits are still sceptical as to the likelihood of reaching 70 million visitors by October 31. Only time will tell if Shanghai will eclipse the record 64 million set in 1970 in Osaka and officially become the most attended Expo ever. The Chinese government has indicated it will pull all stops to ensure that this figure is surpassed.
What is interesting to note is that although visitor numbers have been on the rise, on-site retailers have not reported a notable increase in sales. Gift shops and F&B outlets throughout the Expo have maintained reasonably consistent figures since early May. Many retailers have invested heavily to be involved in the Expo and some are becoming concerned that targets will not be met. And it seems that thrifty locals are the cause for this concern.
Thousands of families hold ‘pavement picnics’ in whatever shade they can find around the Expo site. Often they will sit on small chairs they have brought with them and consume food prepared at home in an effort to save some money. One family was spotted setting up a picnic inside the air-conditioned Australian Pavilion walkway, only to be politely asked to ‘keep moving’.
One thing is certain; the Shanghai World Expo is a unique opportunity for countries around the world to showcase their ‘national brand’ to undoubtedly the most influential group of people to emerge in the past 20 years – the Chinese consumer. The importance of this event has been reflected in the vast sums of money that has been invested by the participating countries. Budgets have been stretched and Expo records broken as each nation attempts to present the best possible face to China.
So the question remains, is it all really worth it? Well, the simple answer is ‘yes’. China is a country of over 1.3 billion people, with an estimated 300 million Zhong Chan or ‘middle class’ rising through the ranks with disposable income and the desire to spend it. The trade, tourism, business opportunities, and high-level relationship building synonymous with an event of this size has the potential to far outweigh the initial investment. At least that is what the Australian government is hoping for after contributing a large swag of the $83 million required to establish and operate the pavilion.
So how does Australia’s brand stack up alongside the rest of the world? The jury is still out on that one but most reports so far indicate that we’ve done a ‘pretty good’ job. Visitors queue for around one hour to sneak a peak at what’s inside and most seem to be suitably impressed. The Act 2 movie is the highlight and is shown on horizontally and vertically moving screens in a 360-degree, 1000-seat auditorium. The technology behind the display is a world first and is a testament to the creative team working behind the scenes.
While there are many smiling faces as visitors leave the Australian Pavilion, not everyone is singing our praises. One guest was curious to know where the koalas and kangaroos were. Another Australian visitor claimed that he was embarrassed by the wasted opportunity, aiming his diatribe specifically at the content of the Act 2 movie and the animated children that he claimed “speaks nothing of who we are as a people”.
Of the other pavilions that have received the most interest, China is undoubtedly at the top. The ground floor features exhibits from each of the provinces and does an excellent job in communicating China’s rich culture. Reservations must be made in order to ascend the 50-metre escalator and into the heart of the pavilion, where you will find movies, a slow-moving rollercoaster ride, and my personal highlight, artwork from primary school children around the country that is of an amazingly high standard.
Saudi Arabia is also enormously popular. Many queue for up to three hours to get a glimpse of the world’s largest Imax screen and the rooftop desert oasis. With over $200 million invested, it is a bold statement as to the affluence of the Saudi people. Also impressive is the UAE. It is only small in comparison to its Middle Eastern cousin but it boasts two spectacularly shot movies that leave audiences clapping in praise and visibly excited about the prospect of visiting Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Japan is also high on the ‘must see’ list for local visitors. No doubt a reflection of the turbulent relationship between the two countries, visitors are keen to see what Japan is all about. Looking somewhat like an upside down cow udder, the Japanese pavilion claims some of the highest tech and eco-friendly features of the Expo.
Germany, USA, South Korea, Spain, and Thailand (with its 4D movie) have all been popular.
With 15 million passing through as at June 16, there are still 55 million potential visitors who have yet to get involved with the Expo action. The next four months are guaranteed to bring plenty of highlights as more and more visitors take up the challenge of travelling around the world without leaving China. ■