In March I had the opportunity to visit the Dubai Expo 2020. This was an assembly of over 200 buildings that were built in the United Arab Emirates, including one for every UN country.
As members of the Travelers’ Century Club, we are constantly meeting unusual and unique cultures as we travel from one country to the next. How often do we get the opportunity to visit all these nations and cultures in one setting?
The Dubai Expo was my first visit to an international exhibition. Ever since the first fair was held in London in 1851, these exhibitions have attempted to tell a story through architecture and experience. Dubai’s primary theme was Connecting Minds — Creating the Future. Sub themes featured were Sustainability, Mobility and Opportunity.
As I was walking from one impressive pavilion to the next, and being duly impressed that I was touring the most elaborately staged fair ever produced, my mind wandered to another era. The St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, was the biggest and most costly exhibition of its time. Both expositions marked anniversaries of miraculous progress. It is difficult to imagine Lewis and Clark leaving St. Louis in 1804 in a wooden keel boat and 100 years later exposition visitors are viewing an x-ray machine on the same site.
In the UAE exhibit in Dubai, the phrase “50 years ago this was just a dream” was projected onto a sandy surface. Who could have imagined the progress Dubai’s economy has made since 1971?
What were the similar and different experiences the fair goers would have witnessed as they toured both the St. Louis and Dubai expositions?
I was surprised to find that both expositions drew approximately the same attendance of 20 million. The physical size was also similar, with both fairs being on approximately 1100 acres or 500 hectares.
The costs of the fairs were definitely not similar. The St. Louis fair cost $15 million dollars, or $560 million in today’s dollars, while the Dubai Fair cost $6.5 billion. Sparing no expense, the Dubai government went out of their way to ensure all of the 193 governments were able to participate with their own pavilions.
At the most recent World Exposition in Milan in 2015, most African countries were placed in one single building with no individual features. In Dubai, each country had their own unique building that they could decorate and display as they chose. The UAE also paid for the exhibition halls for such war-torn and typhoon-damaged countries as Afghanistan, Syria, Lebanon and The Bahamas.
Even though the fairs attracted the same number of people, the type and demographic of the attendees were quite different. While the St Louis World’s Fair attracted many foreign and US dignitaries, officials and celebrities, the main fair-goers would have been farmers and their families. They would have traveled to St Louis from all over the continent. They would have been impressed and amazed as they saw the world’s first X-rays, private automobiles and outdoor electric lighting.
The St Louis Fair had 1,500 buildings and a mile-long (1.6 km) midway to entertain the millions of guests. There were such extravagances as a grand lagoon complete with gondolas and a 150-foot (44-meter) clock made out of fresh flowers, along with scores of restaurants and entertainment options.
The Dubai Expo had any number of fascinating exhibits as well. At one pavilion, they had a full-scale replica of a cargo pod that is part of a proposed hyper loop that will connect Abu Dhabi to Dubai — a distance of 90 miles (150km) — in a matter of 12 minutes.
The Holland pavilion had a monumental vertical garden, Singapore’s had solar-powered hanging gardens, and Finland offered fresh food made in a laboratory.
If anyone is interested in visiting the next editions of these world expositions, you will have several to choose from. A full World Expo is planned for Osaka, Japan, in 2025. Smaller, specialized expositions are planned in 2027 and 2028 in Minnesota (USA), Phuket (Thailand), Belgrade (Serbia) and San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina).