NORTH America's last scheduled World Exposition during this century looks to be one of the great civic celebrations of our age. When Britain's Prince and Princess of Wales snip the opening ribbon today on Expo 86 -- a 55-nation, six-month exposition built loosely on the themes of transportation and communication -- 1.2 million Vancouverites will also be marking their city's 100th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the inaugural run of Canada's transcontinental railroad.
No fewer than 14,000 live performances are scheduled to accompany the fair, and dozens of British Columbia's regional and local festivals are being tied, or timed, to it. The fair's cultural and entertainment budget alone is $60 million.
Beyond that, a $75 million marketing campaign is attempting to bring the world to Vancouver's doorstep, promising a barrage of colors, sights, sounds, and smells both ``exciting and educational.''
The campaign is unabashedly proclaiming the majesty -- and safety -- of Canada's Pacific Coast, with its pristine air, snowcapped mountains, and birds and animals in the wild.
And by most accounts, the fair is on the most stable footing of any since Montreal's Expo 67. Thirteen million of an estimated 17 million tickets have already been sold. The fair is heavily backed by the provincial and federal governments ($1.1 billion) and 35 corporations (among them McDonald's Corporation, which has six restaurants on the site). Twice as many countries are taking part as did in the Knoxville, Tenn., fair of 1982 or the New Orleans fair of 1984, and the site is twice as big as either one.
On the downside, a $300 million deficit is projected from fair-related investment, but that amount is expected to be made up by a provincial lottery, according to Expo 86 spokeswoman Gail Flitten.
Relatively cheap gas and the upsurge of headlines about terrorism abroad are expected to help boost attendance, as is a favorable exchange rate for Americans ($1 US equals about $1.35 Canadian).
But the fair has not been without controversy. Almost since 1979, when the planning began, the event has been dogged by disputes over labor and the eviction of elderly renters from the 180-acre site along an inlet named False Creek. Twenty top labor administrators resigned or were fired in this heavily pro-union province when it was decided that nonunion labor would be brought in to help build the Expo. Six-hundred elderly people were displaced from local hotels, where they'd lived for years, and the evictions raised outcries that only a week ago nearly resulted in one top official's call for concerned citizens to boycott the fair.
But according to Scott McRae, city editor of the Vancouver Sun, the controversies have died down or changed in focus. ``People here have separated those issues from what's going on at the fair itself, and they are now more interested in just getting on with it,'' he says. ``Local businessmen have been rubbing their hands together for two years.'' Indeed, many local hotels have doubled or tripled rates beginning today. Restaurants have raised food prices. ``It pains me to see my fellows fleecing the tourists,'' one resident says.
If there is a consensus about the biggest selling point for Expo 86, it has to be the setting. The Coastal Range mountains here, visible from all parts of the fair site, are nothing short of spectacular. The fairgrounds are set on a peninsula bounded on one side by False Creek, a small inlet, and Burrard Inlet, a larger bay. Stanley Park, a sanctuary of evergreens, guards the end of this jutting fist, which is connected to the mainland by a suspension bridge. The whole basin is caressed by low-lying clouds.
The Expo site itself is punctuated by the pressurized pneumatic canvas roof of the 60,000-seat B.C. Place Stadium. This facility -- together with the soaring sails of Canada Place, a similarly constructed hall resembling the Sydney Opera House -- is visible from all sections of the city. There are also seven major Expo theaters, three cabarets, and two bandstands, all of which will feature steady streams of jazz, pop, blues, rock, dance, and comedy revues.
Aesthetics aside, there are many logistical problems in getting to and from the site, because of high-speed roads separating one section from the next. A journalist was killed before jaywalking between Expo areas was prohibited. Now fairgoers must walk great distances to cross the street.
A week ago, 150,000 people attended a special day for employees and their families. This preview was so successful, even with rainy weather, that the most-prevalent complaint was that there weren't enough signs to the washrooms.
The fair organizers worked hard to get international participation. Besides participation from such diverse countries as Senegal, Sri Lanka, South Korea, and Cuba, it is the first major fair to include pavilions from the Soviet Union, China, and the United States -- all at the same site.
A 2.5-mile monorail snakes through that site to provide free transportation for the expected 130,000 visitors per day. A gondola crosses one end of the grounds over the fair's centerpiece structure, a mirror-skinned geodesic dome. From each of these rides, visitors can see a 205-foot hockey stick and the world's largest hockey puck, mounted here by the host nation.
The two topical centerpieces of the fair are:
``Highway 86,'' a quarter-mile of highway with all kinds of vehicles, from truck, van, and bicycle to helicopter and moon-rover. Each is painted a ghostly cement color.
``The International Traffic Jam,'' where every manner of transportation, from camel and oxen to Mack truck, encircles a central pole.
Both of these attractions are in keeping with the Expo theme: ``World in Motion -- World in Touch: Human Aspirations and Achievements in Transportation and Communications.''
For its part, Canada has built the largest pavilion, situated on its own site across town. Visitors will have to use the $700 million Skytrain to reach this, as well as the many theaters throughout the city. Those include cinemas with a multiscreen presentation, a 360-degree screen, an IMAX projection system, an Omnimax system, 3-D viewing, and Showscan.
Organizers are warning against comparing Expo 86 to Canada's first world's fair, the Montreal Expo of 1967. The latter, as defined by the Paris-based International Bureau of Expositions, was a ``universal'' fair, which allowed participating nations to build their own distinctive pavilions. Expo 86 is designated a ``special category'' fair, where the host nation leases prefabricated structures to foreign nations.
For those who find the theme too constrictive, there are the usual entertainment attractions. In addition to the royal couple, the list of companies and performers expected to appear here over the fair's 165-day duration include the Kirov Ballet, the Royal Ballet, the La Scala opera company, Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers, the Beach Boys, and Miles Davis.
Organizers expect that when the fair is over, it will have boosted the economy throughout this province, which has slowed in recent years because of hard times in the mining, lumber, and fishing industries.
Whatever the financial outcome, Vancouver will lay claim to the fair's most expensive legacies: the rapid-transit system, and the convention center and cruise ship terminal complex.