YEOSU, South Korea — While 1 million tourists are expected to struggle around London to watch the world’s top athletes compete in the Olympics, a lesser-known event – at least for most Americans – is currently trending up to 270,000 people a day and will end its three-month run here next week with more than 7 million attendees. The 2012 Yeosu Expo, otherwise known as “This Year’s World’s Fair,” has a different message from the competitive fervor of London. It is a vision of world cooperation, interchange and interaction; of building and strengthening alliances for trade, economic growth, communication and environmental solutions. Its official theme: “The Living Ocean and Coast.”
Yeosu is located adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, overlooking Hallyeosudo Marine National Park. It is not an easy place to reach. From Minnesota you fly to Detroit and then to Seoul, South Korea. After 13-14 hours of air and airports, you catch a bullet train, which takes 3½ hours at almost 200 miles per hour before it reaches Yeosu. Yet, despite the challenging location, 104 of the world’s countries are exhibiting here.
Yeosu will be followed by a six-month Expo in 2015 in Milan, Italy, and a smaller one in 2017 at either Liège, Belgium or Astana, Kazakhstan. The main candidates for a six-month expo in 2020 are Izmir, Turkey; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Yekaterinburg, Russia; and Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE.) The sites and organizational work for these prestigious global events – four every decade – are governed and regulated by the International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE) created in 1928.
One notable country left off the list of potential hosts is the United States. Although the privately funded USA Pavilion is one of the largest, more popular and dramatic of the buildings in Yeosu, the United States is not a member of the BIE. It hasn’t been since June 2001, when Congress stopped paying its dues. As a result, there has been no World’s Fair/Expo event in the United States since 1984 in New Orleans – and there won’t be unless the federal government pays back dues of about $150,000.
If the dues are paid, the United States would be able to bid to host the event in 2022 — and a nonprofit corporation called The Minnesota World’s Fair is already active and gaining national support to have that bid come from Minnesota.
Testing the waters
In interviews and tours this week in Yeosu we are testing the international waters to see how welcome a U.S. bid would be. It certainly helps that the resident deputy commissioner of the USA Pavilion is Thomas Underwood, a Macalester graduate with a Minnesota wife, and that three of the 40 widely applauded members of the USA Student Ambassadors for World Expo 2012 are Emilie Wardrip, a recent graduate of St. Cloud State, and two University of Minnesota students, Erin Haney and Yvonne May. It’s also useful to have the strong support and remarkable assistance of the State Department team at the Pavilion.
World’s Fairs allow a community to “welcome in the world,” said a young man at the spectacular Kazakhstan Pavilion, which featured a convincing and creative educational video that portrays both the country’s roots in the past and solid connection with modernity. From India, Australia, Lithuania, Belgium, Dominica and others comes uniform encouragement for the United States to return to the community of nations that supports, seeks and hosts World’s Fair events. And back at the USA Pavilion there are experienced people who have been involved in World’s Fair events in the past for the USA. They think it is about time to return to the BIE so more American cities can have the chance to take their place at the world’s table — in the same way that Seattle grew quickly from a West Coast forestry town to a world-class city known around the globe.
The first day of our inquiry ended with a jaw-dropping 45-minute fireworks display set off so close to the departing crowd that it rained ash and must have inflicted more harm to the lungs than three years of three packs a day, the day’s only blip. However, thanks to the energetic help of State Department personnel, looking ahead includes consulting with Japan’s BIE commissioner, attending the Italian National Day Program and consulting with members of the BIE Steering Committee.
As the world focuses on the Olympics with exciting competition, high cost and low financial return, what’s happening in Yeosu has growing importance. Other nations are more than willing to let the USA back into the World’s Fair opportunity, one that can provide a trampoline to launch an area into the world’s stratosphere. If so, why not The Minnesota World’s Fair?
John Hottinger is a principal in Hottinger and Gillette Consulting with offices in St. Paul, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. Steve Heckler has been attending world’s fairs since 1964. He is the director of the Festival of Nations in St. Paul. His other projects include the Twin Cities Jazz Fest and Festa Italiana Minnesota.
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