Clock your fastball or clinch a business deal at Expo 88. Australia sees world fair as a way to boost exports

Another world expo? Yes, there's been a glut of world fairs in the '80s. Knoxville, New Orleans, Tsukuba, Vancouver, and now Brisbane. Indeed, there have been more international expositions crammed into this decade, than in any 10-year span since the concept was born in London in 1851.

But this is the first expo in a century hosted by a Southern Hemisphere nation. It's the first to tackle the theme of ``leisure.'' It's one of the most expensive ($450 million), and likely be one of the few to turn a profit.

From a relatively compact site once occupied by an industrial slum on the muddy Brisbane River, Australia has produced a first-class expo: a laser-lit masterpiece of promotion, education, and entertainment.

Indeed, Expo 88, which opened at the end of April, is being dubbed the ``crown jewel'' of Australia's bicentennial year. In its first two weeks, it has already drawn more than a million people.

For the Australian government - with its $85 billion trade deficit - Expo is seen as a potential catalyst for boosting exports and taking advantage of important trade prospects with nearby Asian countries. ``Expo presents us with a very significant opportunity,'' Prime Minister Bob Hawke said at the opening ceremony.

Peter Watson, head of the Expo Business Visitor's Program, sent out 110,000 letters, in 12 languages, inviting corporate executives worldwide to attend Expo 88. In Australia, another 25,000 executives are being recruited to participate.

From this Who's Who of the corporate world, Mr. Watson has a computerized match-making service. When a Japanese car-manufacturing executive arrives, for example, he gets a list of auto-parts suppliers in Australia. His counterpart here gets a notice that a Japanese executive is in town and making inquiries. Expo provides translators, foreign news services, airline reservations, and secretarial services to facilitate deal-making. A similar program worked well at the 1986 Vancouver expo.

On another level, Expo itself is a living advertisement of Australian enterprise. It has been unveiled on time, on budget, and as Expo chairman Llew Edwards never tires of stressing, ``without a single day lost through industrial disputes.''

What's all this got to do with the Expo theme of ``Leisure in the Age of Technology?''

As a movie at the International Business Machines pavilion explains, technological advances are tipping the scales of work and play toward the leisure side in Australia. According to IBM, a majority of Australians now spend 54 percent of their waking hours in leisure activities, as opposed to 33 percent 200 years ago.

In the United States pavilion, ``Ambassador'' Art Linkletter praises the theme as appropriate for today. ``The whole world is so preoccupied with money, getting ahead, and political problems, and war, and preparations for new kinds of living in the 21th century. This comes back to the basic joy of living. And the joy of living is not a bad thing to concentrate on once in a while.''

The US effort is a celebration of sports and recreation and the related application of science and technology. Snapshots of presidents at play (John Kennedy sailing, Gerald Ford teeing off) hang in the entrance. Seminars on drug use and sports psychology are planned. But the most popular exhibit is the one where visitors can have their fastball clocked via a radar device.

In the queues outside, visitors are entertained by foot-dribbling hackey-sack artists and a team of acrobatic basketball slam-dunk specialists. (A unique facet of this Expo is the emphasis on street entertainment. Some 25,000 acts have been booked for the 184-day fair. There are parades, concerts, and fireworks.)

The Swiss have brought a piece of the Alps to tropical Queensland. What better way to introduce Australians to Switzerland than an indoor ski slope, complete with chair-lift, fresh-made snow daily, and ski lessons. It's a bit cramped, but it's also a hit.

Australia's No. 1 trading partner, Japan is pulling out all stops and is pulling in the crowds. Japan spent the most on its pavilions, an estimated $30 million.

Computermaker Fujitsu's pavilion features a three-dimensional computer-graphics-generated movie projected on the ceiling. A consortium of Japanese firms run another pavilion of assorted exhibits including a marvelous guitar-plucking robot. And the Japanese pavilion includes a high-energy aerobics floor show and a hologram of a Japanese cartoon character, dressed in a kimono speaking perfect Aussie slang.

For some countries, leisure has not entered the realm of laser disc players and jet-skis, but remains focused on traditional dances and ceremonies. A South Pacific village of thatched huts around a quiet lagoon, for example, draws large crowds. ``To be honest, the Fiji exhibit was one of my favorites,'' said one visitor. ``Mostly because a real person showed us around and actually talked to us.''

Praise for Expo 88 has been high. Sir Edwards said the goal of ``a surprise at every meter'' has been achieved. The only stirring of discontent comes from the Aboriginal communities. Several marches protesting the celebration of 200 years of European settlement here have been staged just outside the Expo gates.

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