DUBAI, United Arab Emirates. – A computer-graphic-soaked advertisement featuring Australian actor and Hollywood heartthrob Chris Hemsworth beckons the world to Dubai’s upcoming Expo 2020, promising a “world of pure imagination” as children without face-masks race across a futuristic carnival scene.
Reality, however, crashes into the frame in all capital-letters at the bottom of the screen, saying: “THIS COMMERCIAL WAS FILMED IN 2019.”
Delayed a year over the coronavirus pandemic, Dubai’s Expo 2020 opens on Friday, pushing this city-state all-in on its bet of billions of dollars that the world’s fair will boost its economy. The sheikhdom built what feels like an entire city out of what once were rolling sand dunes on its southern edges to support the fair, an outpost that largely will be disassembled after the six-month event ends in March.
It will be one of the world’s first global events, following an Olympics this summer that divided host nation Japan and took place without spectators. Though Dubai has thrown open its doors to tourists from around the world and has not required vaccinations, it remains unclear how many guests will be coming to this extravaganza.
For some, Expo 2020 has become a US$7 billion metaphor for the United Arab Emirates — a futuristic site to draw the world’s well-to-do.
“We have built an innovative, people-first community that meets the demands of a new world economy, supported by the latest advances in technology and human-centric design,” the statement said.
Modern wonders are what makes the expos shine since their creation in the 1850s. Paris unveiled its Eiffel Tower at the 1889 fair. Chicago became the “White City” in 1893 as electric lights bathed its world’s fair site, which also boasted the first Ferris wheel. Telephones, television broadcasts and X-rays also wowed crowds.
In recent decades, however, many expos have not received the same attention — or at least not the positive kind. The 1984 world’s fair in New Orleans went bankrupt and required a government bailout. Expo 2000 in Germany drew 18 million visitors, well short of the 40 million expected. Milan’s 2015 Expo saw rioting over corruption allegations.
Dubai, which won the rights to host the Expo in the years after FIFA awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, will be the Arab world’s first. It had banked on the Expo providing a needed boost to its economy after its real estate market crashed during the Great Recession.
But that was before the coronavirus pandemic forced Dubai’s long-haul carrier Emirates to ground its fleet of jumbo jets as lockdowns and quarantines seized the world. While the airline is restarting more flights and hiring thousands of cabin crew members, worldwide travel is still ailing.
The UAE, which has grown closer to China in recent years, likely counted on Chinese visitors to the Expo. Shanghai’s 2010 Expo saw over 73 million visitors, a record.