Healthy advance sales confirm popular appeal of Expo 86

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Now that Expo 86 has started its 165-day run, many second-guessers may be wondering why another world's fair is being held in North America. This is the third North American exposition in the past four years, and the other two were financial disasters. The 1982 Knoxville Expo, or World's Fair, left that city with a $76 million debt. The 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans lost $100 million. That's hardly the sort of endorsement that would entice a city to sponsor an Expo. But here in the rugged Northwest, Expo enthusiasts abound, and the skeptics would now qualify for a spot on the endangered species list.

The most promising precursor of a successful fair is the number of advance tickets sold. Until now, no Expo has sold advance tickets for more than one-third of its estimated attendance. Expo 86 initially planned on 13.75 million visitors, but had sold passes for more than 15 million visits before the fair opened last Friday. Based on that response, expected attendance has been revised upward to 20 million. By comparison, Knoxville drew 11 million visitors and New Orleans attracted only 7.6 million.

Many of the visitors to Expo will be from the United States. ``We are receiving tremendous response from Americans and now expect them to account for nearly 30 percent of all fairgoers,'' says George Madden, Expo's vice-president for communications.

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Expo 86 isn't the largest fair ever held. Fairs in Montreal and Osaka, Japan, were larger. But Peter Brown, Expo 86 board member, notes those fairs were held in much more populated areas. ``Most world's fairs of our size are held within a day-and-a-half drive of 80 million people; we're within a day-and-a-half drive of 8 million people,'' says Mr. Brown.

A record 54 countries are represented here, five more than at Osaka. Five additional countries had to be turned away because there was no more space on the two-mile-long Expo site. The Knoxville fair featured 17 international pavilions; New Orleans attracted only 13 foreign exhibitors.

Brown says there's really no comparison between Expo 86 and the fairs in Knoxville and New Orleans. He says US fairs were almost doomed to failure because they received no financial support from the federal government. ``The governments of the world have a hard time justifying coming to New Orleans or Knoxville and making a $15 million or $20 million dollar commitment when the host country doesn't support it wholeheartedly,'' says Brown.

By contrast, the government of British Columbia and Canada's federal government spent a total of $800 million developing the Expo site. It paid off. Participating countries spent another $700 million on their pavilions. From there, Expo 86 snowballed and corporate sponsorship approached $170 million, about $45 million more than the corporate sponsorship for the Los Angeles Olympics.

When Expo 86 is over, the temporary buildings will be dismantled and offered to municipalities through the province. The fair site will be turned into a residential commercial development, making it one of the largest urban renewal projects in North America.

Clint Jones is a reporter for MonitoRadio, the broadcast service of The Christian Science Monitor.

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