Discussion Section: Is the Shanghai Expo Pointless?

I can’t say I’m surprised to read that just a few days after the Shanghai Expo opened, its visitor numbers are well below the apparently overly optimistic expectations. From the Global Times:

Attendance at the World Expo in Shanghai, in its first four days since opening, has fallen short of expectations, adding new concerns for organizers who have been already troubled by complaints about long queues and a lack of affordable food options.

Tuesday was the first unofficial day of the Shanghai World Expo when visitors who hold standard tickets or appointed, unused day tickets could visit the Expo Park.

A total of 146,100 visitors showed up at the park Tuesday, slightly more than Sunday.

Organizers forecast an influx of 70 million visitors, mostly Chinese, over the next six months. To achieve this target, an average of 380,000 people need to visit the site daily.

So far, the highest attendance was on Sunday, with 215,000. On Monday, the last day of the long public holiday, only 131,700 people, the lowest level so far, showed up at the site.

Although officials said about 1,050,000 tickets for the three opening days had been sold, only half of that number showed up.

Is anyone really surprised by this? The idea of a “World’s Fair” was understandably appealing in the 1800s, when it served as an important exchange point for technology, and its appeal continued in the twentieth century because of the peerless opportunity it provided to get a glimpse of lots of other cultures all in one place. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, we have the internet for that. Many countries seem to be treating the Expo as a soft-power branding opportunity, and some countries are just phoning it in. But what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?

How do you feel about the Expo? Is it pointless, or is there something valuable to it (from a visitor’s perspective)? What are the participating countries really getting out of it?

0 thoughts on “Discussion Section: Is the Shanghai Expo Pointless?”

  1. Personally, I think a good World’s Fair needs a lot more food than this one seems to have. Look at what came out of the 1904 fair in St. Louis: ice cream cones! Hot dogs! Sliced bread! A bear statue made entirely of prunes! (I swear I am not making that up.)

    This whole thing just seems to be keeping visitors very distant from everything, but I haven’t actually visited, so perhaps that’s just how it’s being covered?


  2. I’m pretty keen on it but I’m not too keen on the crowds. For me, its like going to the museum, setting aside time specifically to see things you normally wouldn’t really make time to see otherwise. I already have my tickets but I’m just trying to figure out a good time to go where I won’t be fuming in line feeling like I’m wasting my time.


  3. a waste of time; imagine how many would attend if you subtracted the retirees and kids bussed in from the Provinces.


  4. According to what I read, and a feedback from my roommate, it seems pretty lame. So my plan is to wait till all the pavilions are opened and go there with an evening ticket. The queue are gonna be empty and it will be easier to see stuff. The plan is to do that twice, so I’ll have a pretty much idea about what is really the expo.


  5. Yeap, the internet opens and shows the world… but it’s “virtual”. In the Expo yo will have a more holistic experience, more senses involved, and more close to reality. Of course for travelled people like us, expats and pseudo-expats of the world (unite!), may has less appeal, but for a vast majority of local people (Chinese or American, or European, or African… wherever is celebrated) has some appeal.

    I will go with a Taiwanese friend in June. For him is close, for me in Beijing too, the Buildings may have some interesting Photo angles… and Shanghai is always a nice place to rest from Beijing…


  6. I think for a country like China, where a majority of its population won’t ever have the chance to leave the country, a World Expo is still relevant. For many American and European countries, however, viewing such displays pales in comparison to visiting the countries in person – something we have more freedom to do. This is where I believe the disparity of interest lies.

    The only reason I have a desire to visit the Expo is to have something to connect with my Chinese friends down the road. “Yea, I went to the Shanghai Expo!” Good way to score some ‘I’m China-friendly’ points.


  7. Custer, I disagree with about everything you say. Main points:

    1- It is not a 19th century thing. I have been personally to EXPOs in the 90s which were a great success.

    2- EXPOs are by far the largest events in the World in terms of number of visitors. The fact that the US ignores them does not mean that the rest of the countries do.

    3- Regarding the public, there is a reason why there were so few people the first days: we couldn’t go! In Shanghai everybody thought there were no tickets available for the first weekend, and we were told it would be amazingly crowded so we preferred to leave it for another day.

    4- Yes, the countries promote themselves, and yes there is a marketing reason behind their support. So what? You could say the same of virtually any organized activity today, like the Olympic games or joining a biking club. Welcome to capitalism.

    PS. I haven’t even been to the expo yet, I admit 🙂

    But I recommend the coverage on Deluxzilla and on Shanghai Scrap for some interesting stuff:




  8. @ Julen:

    1) My point is just that idea of getting all the world cultures together in one place seems a lot more relevant in an age where travel and intercultural communication was prohibitively time-consuming and expensive.

    2) Yes, but what other “world events” last as long as an Expo? I’d be willing to bet that as far as international exchanges go, far more people care about the Olympics. But that’s just a few weeks long.

    3) So the Expo is going to be sustained throughout the summer entirely by people living in Shanghai? Where were all the visitors from other places, then? We could see a jump in ticket sales and visitors, of course, but I’ll go on record here and now as saying I doubt that will happen.

    4) Yes, but the Olympic games or a biking club have ANOTHER reason for existing, and THAT’S what draws the people. People go to the Olympics for the sports and to cheer on their own countries, and are exposed to “nation branding” in the process. The Expo seems to be a lot more pure “nation branding” and a lot less appeal to the average potential visitor. Yes, advertising and branding are a part of capitalism, and I have no problem with that, but you tell me: how successful do you think a TV station that ran only commercials would be? That’s sort of how I see the expo.

    Suppose I could be wrong though. But the thing is open now, and I still haven’t heard a compelling explanation of why I (or anyone else) should go…so I’m keeping my skepticism glasses on. That link you posted to Shanghai Scrap doesn’t really help…

    If you’ve been to a trade show in the last decade, a science museum, or Disney Land, Expo pavilions are pretty much old hat. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t go. It’s just to say that you shouldn’t bother to wait in line more than fifteen minutes for anything.

    If the pavilions — i.e., the attractions — aren’t worth waiting fifteen minutes for, who would bother traveling internationally to see them? Or for that matter, traveling domestically to see them?


  9. I should add that as far as the US is concerned, part of the problem is the name. We know these things as “World’s Fair”, “expo” makes it sound like a business convention.


  10. It is, actually, too much of a business event. And I think that’s part of the problem. The whole thing has a sanitized, corporate feel to it.

    Now, I’m cool with going to some corporate exhibit if I have nothing else to do—my Lefty principles are sometimes embarrassingly shallow when it comes to this type of thing—but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it. In comparison, the old World’s Fairs seemed like much more unpredictable, rowdy, diverse affairs.


  11. For someone who is supposed to be so culturally aware, C. Custer oftentimes seems quite…dense. I wonder if he just effects a kind of American Gen X narcissistic self-centeredness as a parody of this attitude (see this for what I mean: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/09/weekinreview/09aoscott.html) or if he really is so pompously self-absorbed that he is unable to see the bigger perspective.

    China has been culturally, socially and economically covering about a century-and-a-half of “modernization and development” in the space of one generation. Hosting an event like a world’s fair / expo is a kind of formal Rite of Passage. Many formal rites of passages (like going to the Prom, or hosting your first party) is a game attempt to navigate the treacherous waters of expectations from yourself and your peers, while having to organize and manage the enormously complicated material aspects of the event (dress, program, food, transport, partners). The meaning is in the doing, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Just going through it so one can say, well I been there and done that. China is going through it now, and it’s going to tough it through, no matter what.

    It’s obvious that C. Custer comes from a society that has already “been there, done that”.

    Now, someone who has gone through a rite of passage should be able to appreciate its meaning for a newcomer who has yet to go through with it, and may, if he has a generous and gracious spirit, offer up empathy and understanding. This is the approach Adam Minter takes in his excellent blog Shanghaiscrap, and his commentary on the Shanghai Expo is a joy to read. He has a good understanding of the historical significance of Worlds Fair/Expos and is able to sprinkle some of that understanding as he comments on the meaning today of the Shanghai Expo.

    C. Custer on the other hand adopts an empty-headed, ahistorical, unempathetic and self-centered approach….how the Expo makes him feel (like, can’t they even name it right, it’s a “WORLD’S FAIR”, not an “EXPO”, dammit!).

    It’s as insightful as listening to a guy in his 20’s making snarky comments about how lame it is that some high school seniors are getting excited about going to the prom. When I hear that, I think, what a loser.

    C. Custer don’t take these comments personally. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and applaud you for your parody of the sophomoric GenX view of the Expo.


  12. @ perspectivehere: Not a parody, but I get your point. Obvious there’s plenty of meaning in it for CHINA both in terms of its own confidence and also international standing and respect, etc., but my point was: is the Shanghai Expo pointless from an individual/consumer perspective? Your answers do a lot to explain why the Shanghai Expo exists, but that isn’t the question I was asking:

    “…what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?”

    I also think you’re being pretty ungenerous and making some unfounded assumptions in your interpretation of my tone, despite your pedantic assertions to the contrary. For example, regarding “expo” vs. “World’s Fair”, all I said was that “we know these things as ‘World’s Fairs'”, meaning that’s the term that’s generally used in the US. “Expo” is a term that tends to be used for commercial endeavors rather than cultural ones here. I was just explaining that part of the lack of appeal of the Shanghai Expo in the US may come from the terminology; I was not talking about “how it makes me feel” or suggesting that they named it wrong. I was just saying the name they chose has unfortunate connotations in colloquial American English, which it does.

    Even if we want to talk about coming out parties, though, the Expo seems like a bit of a lame one following the Beijing Olympics. And while it’s another shiny badge for the government to wear, does it really do anything for the people that hosting the Olympics hasn’t already done?


  13. I went yesterday. A waste of time and money. I didn’t get into to see anything because I didn’t wanted to wait in the long lines. Every line to get into a country exhibit seemed to have a 1000 people in it. You could wait 1 -4 hours for each. They sell too many tickets and cannot accommodate the masses.


  14. I live close to expo and must say It is really annoying. First of all a week before the opening, some kind of self proclaimed gestapo in my building compound was taking names and other informations when ever I or friends entered or left the building… Secondly it has become annoying in the metro because uneducated to riding metro masses suddenly appear on my way when ever I want to ride it.

    I went to the expo, security is a joke and all in appearance, I entered with other peoples passes. I am in my 20’s with lots of hair, I could enter with the badge of an old bold geezer. Once in it just sucks… you have shitty vegetation, no large areas of grass to rest on just metal benches. There is not much going on in the streets and in the pavillions. No I think expo is just made for the sake of building facilities which will be visited and used, but financed by third parties. That’s how I see it anyways. Not impressed … at all. Neither are my Chinese friends.


  15. I have also been to the Expo and it was a complete waste of time. You stand in line for ever to see boring things that you could have seen just browsing through Wikipedia. There some tiny things that are a little interesting but they do not at all justify the wait or even time getting there. I have written an article about the Singapore pavilion which can be viewed here: http://theonlinecitizen.com/2010/07/spore-pavilion-long-wait-not-worth-it/


  16. I (from South East Asia) just visited the expo last week with high expectations. Other than walking around and taking pictures of the interesting architecture of the pavilions, I didnt get into the pavilions because of the queues and queuing hours which stretched for 9 hours for Saudi Arabia’s; 7 hours for Japan’s, SKorea’s; 6 hours for most of the European ones. We could have flown to Japan or SKorea from Shanghai in lesser hours!

    Can you imagine seeing only 1-2 pavilions a day, under the hot sun and heat and with smelly bodies?? I managed to get into a few pavilions (Greece, Austria, Luthania etc) where there were no queues……..most of the pavilions are huge but empty inside, with only video screens, posters, displays of products – nothing which we couldnt get today from the internet. I would imagine the same video presentations etc in many of the other popular pavilions. It really did not justify the wait and visit.

    Most of these pavilions cost tens of millions to build and most will be torn down after 6 months (except for 5, so I read)- what a waste of money and totally “environmentally unsustainable”!

    While the Expo may be interesting event for the local chinese who may not have the many opportunities to travel outside of China – and this event helps to provide them a moment to “travel around the world” – I didnt get the feeling they were learning anything as it seemed the aim of most of the Chinese visitors were to get into the pavilions and rushed to the counter to secure a “stamp” into their “expo-passport”…….been there and seen that!

    The Expo is definitely not worth a visit and is becoming irrelevant in the Internet/Information age unless the format is changed and updated.


  17. Problems in Shanghai Expo 2010
    Hello, i am one of expo visitors who traveled from Africa to china just to see expo.
    I found many problems during my visit.
    – Expo is made only for Chinese people and not for all people of the world. I have reasons to say that. 99,9% of pavilion just explain everything in Chinese, they just speak Chinese and not English ( international Language). So i am going to expo and cannot understanding anything because i don’t speak Chinese. Just few pavilion like of USA, where everything was translated in English. I have visited many Expo. Example of Portugal, they were speaking Portuguese ( local Language) and also English. That was a good way.
    – China pavilion have some serious problems. According to the Web site: http://en.expo2010.cn/ , you just buy tickets and go to . I spend 2 days in Expo. I went with my family ( me, my wife and 2 baby). I stay in queue and wait untill comes my time to go inside, so they ask me reservation ticket. I Exclaimed. Where in written in website that it need a reservation ticket to go inside pavillion? They said me i can get only in entrance at 9:00 AM. Next day i arrive 8:50, so wait in queue in fast track because of baby. 9:05 AM arrive at security checking. After that when they ask me ticket . i gave them and i asked about china pavillion reservation ticket. They said they don’t have, i was finished. ( here starts problem). How it is possible, they said me to come on time and i was there on time. — This is on of the problems wich, maybe all foreginer, have faced.
    So i ask to talk with manager of Expo, at entrance they said, they cannot do anything. Is better i go to talk with manager of pavillion.
    so at china pavillion after many discussion about the matter they alow me to go inside. Just think if someone who not make pressure, he could not see the pavillion.
    – in 80% of pavillion there was no representant of relative contry. Exple, at India Pavillion, just came 1 chinesse lady she talked, talked, and show us a small movie and finish. We couldnt see any indian people. Just at ground floor there were many shops of indian people full on indian items just to do BUSINESS. It shouldnt be like that. Expo is not only for business.
    – Many of volunteers dont speak english, but they tryed their best to guide well us. So Votting to them.
    – Have many many claims to do, but i have to left some for others foreigners.


  18. I agree with the above comments that the Expo is excellent for the Chinese but for those visiting from other countries it is a complete waste of time. It seems to be mostly a travel expo for those who have never been overseas before. The pavillions are nothing special especially so after waiting several hours to get in. Once inside the pavillion one can’t really wait to get out! I’m sure a lot of time and effort has gone into their construction however you would have thought they would entice the visitor for at least half an hour not 5 miniutes. The best option if one did want to go is get there when it opens and visit three to four of the large popular pavillions i.e. Italy, UK etc and leave the park by 12pm and probably come back in the evening. Shanghai though is an impressive city and it’s better to see the sights there!


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