What is Expo2020:
World Expo is the current name for a World´s Fair. World Expos showcase the achievements of nations and the human. Expos have been in existence since the mid 1800´s, but since 1928, they have been centrally organized by the Paris-based Bureau International Des Expositions (BIE), a non-profit consisting of 170 member nations.
World Expos occur every 5 years and last between 3-6 months. They typically occur in years ending in 5 or 0. The 2020 World Expo, known as Expo 2020, was awarded to Dubai, the largest city in the United Arab Emirates. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Expo was pushed back to October 2021-March 2022. For marketing and branding purposes, the organizers decided to keep the Expo 2020 name.
The government of the UAE and the government of Dubai have decided to make Expo 2020 a statement for the country´s status as the epicenter of an increasingly connected world. To do that, they set out to create the grandest World Expo that has ever been held. In total, the UAE and Dubai governments spent $18 billion on the Expo.
The Expo 2020 grounds were built on the outskirts of Dubai on what was previously empty desert land. The site is just over 1,000 acres (438 hectares). By comparison that is larger than Central Park, more than double the size of Monaco, and more than 6 times the size of Disneyland.
A World Expo consists of booths, known as pavilions. Most of the pavilions are constructed by countries. Every pavilion had some sort of exhibit that revolved around one or a combination of four themes: Tourist sights, culture, business opportunities, and sustainability efforts currently underway in the country. Additionally, some booths sold local food and other hosted performances.
A record 192 countries had pavilions at Expo 2020. To reach this number, the UAE actually paid for several booths including Bahamas, Bhutan, Syria and the United States since not every country wanted to spend funds on a booth. The only no-shows were North Korea, Iceland, Taiwan, Liechtenstein, and Ecuador. About 2/3 of country pavilions were in structures built by the Expo organizers. However, larger, or wealthier countries generally opted to build their own structures. Many of these structures cost tens of millions of dollars. The USA Booth, for example, cost $60 million to build.
In addition to the country pavilions, there were pavilions built by the expo organizers surrounding a themes such as Mobility, Sustainability and Women´s Rights plus sponsor pavilions such as Emirates Airlines, DP World and the Dubai public utilities corporation (DEWA).
Sprinkled in the mix were restaurants, performance spaces and public art installations.
In short, Expo 2020 was a mega version of Epcot.
Why Visit Expo 2020:
At least 20 of my friends visited Expo 2020 and said that I HAD to go. That was enough to get me to book the flight for a weeklong vacation in the Emirates.
I booked the trip for March just 10 days before the Expo would close. I decided to spend 2 days at the Expo.
Preparing for Expo2020:
Many of the larger pavilions have long lines (> 1 hour). To skip the lines, the Expo created a Smart Queue system (think Disneyland´s FastPass) where visitors can reserve times to visit pavilions via the official Expo2020 app. Many of the top pavilions were selling out weeks in advance. To secure my reservations, I purchased my admission ticket a few weeks early (a ticket was a VERY reasonable 50 dirhams or $14 USD), downloaded the app and started booking slots at pavilions. I tried to pick pavilions that were known to be good. The app´s UI was terrible, and system was very glitchy (truly shocking given the huge corporate sponsors involved). Nevertheless, I was able to book a decent number of pavilions.
I planned to visit mid-week when most locals were working, and the lines were theoretically shorter.
Transport to the Expo:
The Expo is located nearly 40 kilometers from Downtown Dubai. A taxi could cost between $25-35 and took 25-30 minutes. Alternatively, the Dubai Metro was extended to reach the Expo. A metro ticket is about $2.50 US. The trip from Downtown Dubai took about 50 minutes. By the way, the Dubai Metro is incredibly clean.
One of the most popular souvenirs from Expo2020 is a passport. It looks just like a bright yellow national passport. Every country pavilion had a stamp.
Some guests were obsessed with the stamps to the point where they would visit a pavilion just to get the stamp. I saw some people attempt to walk into the booth exits so they could obtain stamps. I even saw people walk into booths with multiple passports (most I saw was 10) to get them all stamped. The booth operators must have been bewildered by this behavior.
24 Notable Pavilions:
Rather than give a narrative of my time at the Expo, I am instead going to describe some of the more memorable pavilions both good and bad. In total, I visited 70 pavilions (just over 1/3 of the total) over 2 days.
Ukraine: This was the first pavilion I visited. The pavilion was originally meant to showcase innovation in the country´s manufacturing and agriculture industries, it was reimagined in the wake of the Russian invasion. Save for a welcome video by President Volodymyr Zelensky, the remainder of the exhibit was covered in sticky notes with words of encouragement for the people of Ukraine.
Iraq: A country on the rise, the Iraq pavilion was an art gallery containing exclusively modern Iraqi artists. My girlfriend Maisie said this was some of the worst art she has ever seen. Nevertheless, the gallery showcases a different look for a country known almost exclusively for violence.
Norway: Norway´s pavilion highlighted its sustainability efforts to clean the oceans in the form of a 15-minute video. Unfortunately, the movie was so boring that most people (including myself) walked out.
Belarus: Belarus constructed an enormous 2-level booth highlighting its super-futuristic green cities. A video showed women laughing and riding horses in the woods. Too bad that none of this is real! I got a good laugh but do wonder how many people were fooled by this propaganda.
Austria: Austria decided to build a structure that looked just like an Australian aboriginal cave, complete with pictographs. The actual inspiration was from ancient Arabian houses, which have a natural air conditioning system. The pavilion confused a lot of people and I heard multiple guests tell the staff how much they love Australia. Oh well!
Sierra Leone: A small pavilion mostly dedicated to the President, which included many artifacts including his football jersey. To be fair, they did have a large screen proclaiming they have the largest shrimp fishing grounds in West Africa…
Liberia: The pavilion was not memorable, but the President of Liberia was going to visit in a few days and the public was invited to meet him. Pretty cool!
Saudi Arabia: Winner of the best pavilion at Expo2020 and for good reason. Saudi Arabia is a country looking to modernize and change its image quickly. The building is in the shape of an open laptop. The hour-long line weaves around the exterior. The “screen” of the laptop is an enormous video screen projecting impressive abstract images and photos of the country. A group of traditional drummers performed on the “keyboard”.
Towards the end of the line, there was an “enter at your own risk” fountain. One Muslim lady in a full black robe got drenched. Going up an escalator is a Saudi version of “It´s a Small World” containing miniature versions of the country´s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The country has more than you would expect!
The top room is a Saudi Version of the Disney ride “Soarin Over California” with incredible panorama and drone views of the country´s many natural and historic sites. I did not realize that Saudi Arabia has jungle, mangrove forests and beautiful beaches! I heard numerous people mention how they now really want to visit Saudi Arabia and I agree. The down escalator featured images of beach resorts and smart cities currently under construction in the Kingdom. Bravo, Saudi Arabia!
United States of America: Built and paid for by the UAE government because US law currently does not allow for the use of public funds at Expos. Reportedly cost $60 million to build.
After a welcome by Kamala Harris, guests rode a moving walkway that resembled a baggage claim belt (Americans don´t really like walking so this was on-brand). After winding past Thomas Jefferson´s Quran, visitors were greeted by a giant hand of the Statue of Liberty and a voice track proclaiming the USA is the land of the free (a message that seemed to fall flat in the benevolent dictatorship that is the UAE).
Then, a room on American ingenuity from the automobile to the iPhone followed by a room on America´s national parks. The grand finale was a room on NASA which included a replica Mars rover and a real SpaceX rocket! Like in all exhibits in the USA, guests exited through the gift shop. The most intruiguing part of the booth was the café, which featured American foods such as a New York bagel, Buffalo chicken wings, poke, the Impossible burger, marshmellows and a New Orleans shrimp po´boy. The message was a bit convoluted, but in general the pavilion was well-done and made me proud of my country.
South Korea: One of the most popular pavilions. I arrived right when the Expo opened for the day and still waited 30 minutes. Throughput is very low. The exterior is a mountain of multicolored cubes that looks straight out of a Squid Games set. Using a provided smartphone, you walk up and down the mountain stopping to scan QR codes and look at AR (augmented reality) images of “the future”. Much of the pavilion appeared to be a bid for Busan to host the 2030 World Expo and was poorly done. The final room was a wonderful video on the subject of movement in an air-conditioned room with beanbags. Did not get to go, but they had a restaurant with the imaginative name “Korean Restaurant”.
Namibia: Small pavilion, but they did a great job a highlighting the country´s resources including wind energy and agricultural land. The ceiling contained what must be the world´s largest flag of Namibia.
Bahamas: Bahamas originally pulled out of Expo 2020 after Hurricane Dorian, but the Emirati government stepped up and funded the pavilion. As a token of their gratitude, the portraits of the Sheiks and crown princes of Dubai and Abu Dhabi occupied a prime location in the pavilion.
Andorra: A country that has a special place in my relationship with Maisie. Andorra had a video of the ski resorts that occupy something like 1/4 of the country. The pavilion also featured a topographic map. A lady shockingly let her kids walk on the map!
Luxembourg: Luxembourg is a tiny country that has become fabulously wealthy by encouraging economic coordination of its wealthy neighbors and luring finance companies to relocate through beneficial tax disclosure rules. After a video welcome from the country´s monarch, the Grand Duke, visitors viewed an impressive video showcasing the country´s role in OPERATING the world´s largest private satellite network. The Luxembourg pavilion also contained the tallest slide in the UAE. I would have gone down it, but the line was 30+ minutes long.
Switzerland: A gem. The exterior is shimmering metal. Patrons in the line were given red parasols to shield from the sun. The combination resulted in an incredible aesthetic.
Inside, visitors switch backed through a foggy room meant to resemble climbing the Alps.At the top, above the fog, visitors could see the view change from sun to a thunderstorm.
Iran: Iran is known for making the best carpets in the world. Many of the famous silk carpets were on display. Some were available for purchase, but the prices were in the 10´s of thousands of dollars.
Syria: The first written language was in Syria. The booth explains the history of the language and even had an 8,000-year old artifact with the Ugaritic writing. The second part of the exhibit contained messages and drawing from people in Syria. Powerful.
Russia: Easily in the top 3 best pavilions at the Expo. The building resembled a multicolored ball of yarn. Inside, the top floor centered on an enormous brain with videos projected on it. The exhibit talked about brain research and was extremely informative. One piece of info I found interesting: culture becomes wired into the brain early in life due to the development of neural networks.
Turkmenistan: Fronted by horse sculptures, the exterior resembles a giant carpet. The first room contains a video board proclaiming TURKMENISTAN – HOMELAND OF NEUTRALITY! in a Windows 2000 aesthetic. The next room had a wrap-around video board with natural scenes of the country. The top floor was a futuristic all-white room containing a cafeteria and exhibits on investing in Turkmenistan. Maisie tried to chat up the representative from the Fabric department to try to get us an invitation.
Jamaica: The top small booth. Brightly colored interior. The exhibit highlighted jerk chicken and Bob Marley. A dynamite combination.
Sweden: A series of wooden poles that resembled walking through a forest. The undisputed highlight of the pavilion was the IKEA café. Sweden clearly knows their brand.
Brazil: Had a giant pool where people can wade in the water. They also had a show in the water where dancers ran from a fake anaconda. Really spectacular. The pavilion also had an exhibit, but it was by reservation only and was completely booked out for the rest of the Expo.
Spain: The last booth visited, and boy was I glad we went. After winding down a Guggenheim NYC-esque spiral walkway into the earth surrounding a hissing light-up mobius strip, you get to watch one of the BEST SHORT FILMS ever made that is fun while also showcasing Spain´s culture and sustainability. A friend told me the film made him cry. The remainder of the exhibit showcases the mobility infrastructure improvements being developed in Spain including a test hyperloop.
Besides visiting pavilions, Expo 2020 was full of performances both large and small.
Some of the larger pavilions held cultural performances outside and open to the general public. Some of the most impressive performances were Thailand and Brazil. Australia had a really strange group of dancers lip synching to Western pop music such as Meghan Trainor´s “All About That Bass”. The central pavilion held official events such as speeches from dignitaries and, on the second day of my visit, a high school graduation.
At the back of the Expo was the main stage which held a large-scale concert each night. The day I was in the area, the concert was a famous Pakistani singer who drew a rowdy crowd who camped out all day. Other performers that I recognized on the schedule were Jason Derulo and Christina Aguilera, but there were superstars from all over the globe.
What Happens After the Expo?:
Expo 2020 ended 1 week after my visit. The Dubai government says that the Expo grounds and main pavilions are going to be turned into a prototype neighborhood of the future. They claim that most of the materials are going to be recycled. I am skeptical, but only time will tell. Many cities have successfully turned former Expo grounds into monumental districts such as New York, St. Louis, and Paris.
As the country pavilions are owned by the respective countries, they fate of the materials is most likely left up to them. The Bahrain pavilion had a plaque stating that it will be moved to Bahrain for permanent installation in the capital.
The Expo lived up to the massive hype as an Epcot with 191 countries. It is without a doubt, the grandest event I have ever seen. And as a lover of all things global, I was truly a kid in a candy shop.
The scale of the pavilions and the grounds themselves exceeded my expectations – I heard it would take multiple days to see it all, but I did not believe them…until I got there. At my rate, it would take 4-5 days to see everything in the Expo. In fact, I did not even see about half the pavilions. The lines were long, but with the SmartQueue system and the many smaller booths, I was not phased.
I applaud the optimism of the Expo and believe in its vision for a united, connected, sustainable human race. However, it is just that, a vision. Unfortunately, Expo 2020 does not paint an accurate picture of the world. The 191 countries (and the 6 who were not present) are not sitting side by side in peace waiting in open arms for visitors. There is conflict and there is suffering. Not every country is an idyllic hub of innovation.
I would highly recommend visiting a future World Expo, but to do so with a lens of skepticism. Be amazed by the spectacle. Soak up the sights, see the shows, talk to the people from every corner of the globe, but don´t for a second be fooled into thinking you are “seeing the world”.
See you in Osaka in 2025!