Seville Hosts a Pricey World Expo

DANIEL LACASA, his name tag askew, walks the Expo fairgrounds with two straws jammed into a lemon slush. He's looking for his group. We walk together to the Swedish pavilion.

"They've invested very well," he says, looking around at the pristine pavilions that line the walk. But "they have had to take advantage of people."

His small lemon slush cost 300 pesetas ($3).

Over at the Argentine pavilion, Expo ambassador Atilio Molteni has just emerged from a grueling press conference. Journalists wanted to know why the pavilion was so culturally skimpy. (American journalists have leveled similar criticism at the United States' pavilion.) Mr. Molteni didn't seem to have a good enough answer.

"There is more of Disney at this kind of Expo," he says, surveying the crowd. "It looks like people just want to have fun."

Expo '92 is part cultural exposition, part theme park, part come-to-my-country promo. Seville, Spain, has put on a huge six-month celebration of the world's diversity. Lots of sound; lots of pictures; little text. If MTV put on a National Geographic documentary, the result would be something like Expo.

Take the popular Australian pavilion. Visitors waiting in line are treated to a video of a rock concert. Inside, they wend their way slowly upward, around a recreated rain forest (complete with rainbow lorikeets), through rooms of beautiful and constantly changing pictures. Mood music accompanies the slide-show.

An even more striking example of high-tech national pride is the New Zealand pavilion. Visitors see a film of an opera singer and orchestra interpreting a New Zealand poem about discovery. To each side of the screen, sailboats pop up and flail about to the swelling music. At the front of the stage, they become projection screens for modern and centuries-old sailing expeditions. The effect is impressive, but you can walk out of the pavilion without having read one word about New Zealand.

It is moving to see how Expo reflects the world's changes. There's a little flush of vicarious pride seeing the pavilion of the now-independent Baltic states. One can't help wondering whether this is the last time Czechoslovakia unites for an exhibit. Even tiny Puerto Rico, participating for the first time as an independent entity, put on a grand parade with some of the most imaginative floats I've seen.

Then there's Hungary. Its pavilion is a mysterious, upward-swooping structure topped with steep bell towers. The inspiration of Imre Makovecz, one of Hungary's most popular architects, the oak-and-pine pavilion radiates central European symbolism. A tree, planted in a clear plastic floor so that its roots are visible, suggests height, depth, concrete reality, and fantasy. The towers represent Hungary, wedged between two auditoriums that stand for Eastern and Western Europe.

"Hungary is trying to get the world's interest," says Tamas Kovacs, a young Hungarian host. "The world has almost forgotten this country because it was behind the Iron Curtain. Now, it has to rediscover it."

Powerful stuff. The problem with the Expo is that it's choked with souvenir shops and high-priced food. Not surrounded - choked.

It costs $40 for a one-day ticket ($15 for children). That's more expensive than Walt Disney World's Epcot Center in Florida. And at Disney World, at least, once you've paid the entrance fee it doesn't cost extra for a map of the park ($1.50 at Expo), the monorail ($4), or the rides ($3 for the cable car). High-priced concessions

"It's not so expensive," counters Maria del Mar Cresis, an Expo spokeswoman. "You can buy a three-day ticket." (It's $100.) Or, she says, wait until 8 p.m. and see the musical and other performances for $10. (Too bad that's when pavilions close.)

The food is also expensive, even by Spain's high-priced standards, as Ms. Cresis admits. The Expo burger is $5; the Maxi burger is $6. Curro, the colorful bird that is mascot to this Expo, costs $4 in his ice-cream incarnation. (He's $25 as a stuffed animal.)

But don't blame Arie Bos, who runs 21 concession stands at Expo, including the one that sells Maxi Burger. He says the press also leveled criticism - unjustified, in his view - at the prices of the 1986 Expo in Knoxville, Tenn. What with rent, labor, and high prices charged by food companies, he says he's struggling to make a profit by selling a 50-cent Coke for $2.

"The Expo itself is wonderful," he says, but the city got greedy. When the concession contracts were written, there were supposed to be 92 food-concession stands at Expo. Instead, there are 300, he says: "I am looking forward to breaking even."

Perhaps the single biggest bandits are Seville hotels, which doubled or tripled their prices in anticipation of a surge of tourists. The result? People stayed out of town at cheaper places. The hotel reservation center got so many complaints, in fact, that room rates were lowered by an average of 10 percent just as Expo opened.

Expo may yet get the 36 million visitors it expects, but it won't be the ones it anticipated.

Instead of half its visitors coming from outside Spain, less than 30 percent are foreigners. Complaints about high ticket prices have led Expo organizers to increase the number of half-price days (announced only a few days in advance, so that only locals can plan for them). Season passes (at $300 apiece) became so popular that officials cut off sales, worried that locals would crowd out visitors from out of town.

Instead of showing off to the world, Seville is largely showing off to itself.

"Seville has become coquettish," says Francisco Hurtado Velazquez, a local taxi driver. He says he's never seen such construction of new roads and highways. That will help the city, but much of what was built for Expo will be torn down when the exposition closes in October. And somewhere between a $3 lemon slush and a $25 stuffed toy, one wonders if the city missed the point. Expo should be something more than an expensive theme park.

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