Expo 2017 opened on June 10, 2017 in Astana, the capital of the huge country of Kazakhstan in Central Asia. It will run until September 10, playing host to a total of 115 countries and 22 international organisations who are participating across a futuristic 25-hectare site halfway between the city centre and the airport.
The Kazakhstan government has invested heavily in Central Asia’s first ever expo event, hoping to enhance its slowly growing geopolitical and economic reputation on the world stage. Initial press reports have been mixed, with quite a lot of cynicism aimed at the government’s official expectation that the Expo will see five million visitors, and the site’s enormous spherical central feature, the National Pavilion or “Nur Alem”, being labelled the “Death Star”.
I had the opportunity to visit the event in late June. Arriving in mid-morning, the entrance gates were worryingly empty, and walking between two of the huge, curving pavilion buildings towards Nur Alem, there were precious few people around.
However, according to Daniyel Serzhanuly, Expo 2017’s senior manager tourism and promotion department, “as of June 22 the average daily visitor number stood at 40,000 per day, and a growth curve is expected”. Indeed, on June 29 the Expo website stated visitor numbers had reached 500,000.
The official line remains that five million visitors are expected to attend the site over the whole three months, with international visitors accounting for 15 per cent of that (a fairly standard percentage for these events in developing countries).
Initially this figure seems on the optimistic side – on the day I visited, my admittedly very rough “guesstimate” of numbers in the few hours I was there came to between 3,000 and 4,000. Spread over such a large site the impression was of a sparsity of ticket holders, but once inside the National Pavilion that forms the core of the site, the crowds were substantial, and I could imagine a total daily figure in excess of 20,000 (in this climate evenings would be a more popular time to visit than midday).
Were that to be maintained, you would be approaching two million for the whole three months – a visitor count that I personally would see as a qualified success for such a bold first-time event in what is a very remote location for almost everyone, whether Kazakhstani or foreign.
The quality of the country displays in the various pavilions varies widely, ranging from simple posters on the walls of booths to an excellent mixture of interactive displays, videos, cinematic viewing areas, etc. This was most evident in the National Pavilion, which was part museum, part multimedia activity centre, part high-tech showcase. A lift brings you to the eighth floor viewing platform, and from there you walk down in a spiral pattern, with each floor dedicated to a different form of sustainable energy, from wind to solar, kinetic to thermo-nuclear, etc.
There are daily events and performances from each of the participating countries, and Cirque du Soleil has its own pavilion, in which it is performing more than 70 shows over the Expo period. The majority of Expo visitors are of course Kazakhstanis, but during my visit all age groups were represented, as were families across the wealth spectrum, which was good to see.
A ticket for the day costs 4,000 tenge (US$12.5) on weekdays and 6,000 tenge (US$18.6) on weekends, with a multi-pass for the entire event costing 50,000 tenge (US$155). Since a single day is really not enough to see the entire site, the Expo organisers offer discounted tickets to tour operators so that they can sell domestic package tours that include more than one daily ticket.
In terms of marketing, Serzhanuly says, “the organisers have worked with international tour operators, the government has opened visa-free entry to the country for 45 nations, group tourist visas for Chinese have been implemented, and the organisers have teamed with CNN on articles, videos, etc to create exposure, as well as using their own social media channels to spread the word about the Expo through daily postings, short videos, etc.”
However, it’s fair to say there has been a certain amount of criticism from the foreign press about the efficacy of the Expo’s marketing campaign. Only time will tell if this is warranted, but my own opinion is that too often negative comparisons are made that cite previous Expos such as Milan (2015) and Shanghai (2010) – both of which were six-month events (twice as long as Astana’s Expo), and affected by vastly differing geographical, political and social factors.
Are there ways in which Expo 2017 could have been improved? Of course. Have mistakes been made in its planning and the level of expectation about its global significance or reach? Quite possibly. But does that mean it should not be seen as a success if it doesn’t attract the numbers it aspired to? Not in my opinion. I think that bold ideas by nascent countries such as Kazakhstan bode well for a progressive future for all.
And perhaps more important than the Expo event itself, is its legacy – something that has often been a problem for these types of event in countries around the world (here you could indeed cite Milan and Shanghai and – potentially – compare favourably for Astana).
After Expo 2017 finishes, the central core of the site will remain as a tourist attraction, with many of the displays being kept unchanged. Part of the site will be used by the nearby Nazerbayev University, part will be a techno park, while two pavilions will be allocated to become the country’s new Astana International Finance Centre (AIFC), which it is hoped will become Central Asia’s financial hub, focusing on green investment, Islamic investment, financial technology, private banking and more.
The reality is that world expo events are no longer of particular interest to the populations of developed, “first world” countries, whose citizens are now able to travel globally and have access to images and information about wherever and whatever they wish through the internet.
For developing nations, however, there is still an important place for events that showcase under one roof the incredible cultural and technological wealth and diversity of the natural and manmade world. It can only benefit global society for countries such as Kazakhstan to assume the Expo mantle and forward the concept of worldwide exposition in all its aspirational intent.