Expensive Exposure

6 minute read

Ever since London’s Crystal Palace began the “Expo” tradition in 1851, world fair organizers have been unable to resist the lure of bigger-is-better. The spectacular Expo 2000, which opened in Hanover last Thursday, is no exception: covering an area the size of Monaco, the first world fair to be held in Germany is the largest and costliest in history, with a record 51 pavilions and some 180 participating countries and organizations. It may also become a financial fiasco.

Even if all goes to plan, the millennium Expo, with its ambitious motto “Humankind Nature Technology,” will cost a lot more than it takes in. Some $190 million of the $1.6 billion budget, says commissioner-general Birgit Breuel, the head of the world fair’s organizing committee, will not be covered by the expected revenues of $870 million in admission fees, $145 million in licenses and $460 million in sponsorship. Although the organizers boast that their Expo is the first to be financed by private sector investment alone and not by public funds, that deficit will eventually have to be paid by the federal government and the state of Lower Saxony, which are guarantors. And taxpayers may be left with an even higher burden by the time the mega-event closes its gates on Oct. 31.

All too often organizers have indulged in lavish overspending. The five-second Expo jingle composed by Germany’s techno-pop band Kraftwerk, for example, cost a whopping $190,000, which led even Chancellor Gerhard Schrder, an otherwise enthusiastic Expo supporter, to admit that he “wouldn’t have spent so much money” on that. “In the end, we’ll probably be looking at a deficit of half a billion dollars,” says Enno Hagenah, a member of the Lower Saxony state parliament for the Greens. Given Germany’s economic problems, he thinks, that is money “ill-spent.”

“The official calculation of revenues is overly optimistic,” says Bernhard Zentgraf, head of Lower Saxony’s Association of German Taxpayers, “particularly the demand for tickets.” Breuel insists that, come rain or shine, “a total of 40 million tickets will be sold,” since 34% of adult Germans some 20 million people said in opinion polls that they would visit the Expo, and everyone, including an expected 5 million foreign visitors, “will spend an average of two days on the fairground.” That estimate seems questionable given that only 11% of those interviewed said they would “definitely” go to Hanover and that advance booking is slow: only 3.5 million $33 tickets have been bought so far.

Optimism also seems to have reigned supreme when Expo managers calculated sponsorship revenue. Companies haven’t exactly queued up to shell out the required $4.8 million or $14.5 million to become, respectively, product or world partners. Breuel is still more than $130 million short of the targeted sum. The reluctance of corporate sponsors to invest, says Sebastian Turner, managing partner of Berlin-based marketing firm Scholz & Friends, is because “the organizers have failed to convey to the public a clear image of what Expo 2000 is going to be: an entertainment park, a blown-up museum, or a nature reserve.” The fair’s green motto has also confused some participants. “For a long time, companies were unsure if they would be putting money in an eco-show or a showcase for their latest inventions,” says Ralf Strobach, secretary of Hanover’s Citizens’ Initiative for Environment Protection.

Others question the choice of Hanover as the venue. Unlike former Expo cities such as New York, Seville or Lisbon in 1998, the quiet northern German city with a population of 500,000 isn’t exactly a tourist magnet. And experts fear its infrastructure might buckle under the influx of hundreds of thousands of visitors on peak days. “The majority of companies we approached didn’t even know the place existed. It’s not a draw at all,” says William B. Rollnick, commissioner-general of the American Expo committee. The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1994 prohibiting the use of public funds at world fairs, so Rollnick was faced with the difficult task of raising enough private sector donations to finance the 12,000-sq-m U.S. pavilion. Because of the obscurity of the venue and the high costs rent per Expo square meter is $1,900 that was probably overambitious from the start, he says. Unable to get the funds, the U.S. will be a notable absentee in Hanover.

But if all these money worries are bad news for the accountants, the huge spending will benefit Hanoverians in the long run. “The Expo 2000 is the gift of a century to the city and not because it will put Hanover on the world map,” says Breuel. Private and public investments of billions of dollars have much improved local infrastructure and many of the national Expo pavilions will be left on site to be used by the city for cultural events. Visitors, too, will profit from organizers’ liberal use of money. There will be a total of some 15,000 concerts, theater productions, dance performances, fireworks, and laser shows. And Expo 2000 features dozens of truly avant-garde national and corporate pavilions.

The main 100,000-sq-m theme park a new world fair feature offers visions of a high-tech Utopia-around-the-corner. Linked by the Agenda 21 principle of sustainable development, devised at the Rio “Earth Summit” in 1992, its 11 exhibitions try to “present solutions to the pressing problems of the 21st century,” like energy production, health and nutrition, with impressive virtual-reality installations, electronic gadgetry and provocative biomorphic shapes.

Architecture aficionados will be thrilled by several intriguing pavilions of truly “green” design. An example is the Netherlands’ five-tiered, open-structure steel building with its stacked landscapes. These include a catchment basin on the top level, with wind turbines to supply part of the energy for the pavilion. Below is a forest and tulip field irrigated by rainwater caught on the roof then channeled down through a transparent curtain. Switzerland’s pavilion is 3,000 cu m of stacked timber beams which form a maze of rooms and yards. Hungary’s open-roofed, ship-shaped wooden pavilion is being hailed for its towering, subtly rounded, honey-colored walls. Nepal offers a stunning blend of a Hindu temple and a Buddhist stupa adorned with intricate carvings. The United Arab Emirates has erected a huge desert fort, complete with palm trees, camels and a noisy bazaar full of exotic smells.

Breuel believes the fair’s “holistic experience of all the senses” and the treatment of “topics which are extremely important to man” will make people flock to Expo 2000 from all over the globe. German taxpayers and some nail-biting accountants hope she is right.

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