Biggest and the most expensive, but not all rushing to visit fair
Will Clem and Alice Yan in Shanghai
It has been billed as the biggest and most expensive fair in history, but four days after opening, the World Expo in Shanghai has fallen way short of attendance expectations.
Yesterday - a public holiday in the city and the first day when holders of ordinary tickets were allowed access since the expo opened on Saturday - visitor numbers barely scraped past one-third of the projected daily average by lunch time. Fewer than 10,000 more visited after 5pm when tickets for the evening session went on sale for the first time, bringing the day's total to 146,000.
Organisers are aiming for at least 380,000 visitors a day to reach their goal of 70 million over the fair's six-month run.
Yesterday's disappointing numbers followed similarly lacklustre attendance during the first three days - for which special premium-rate tickets were sold.
Shanghai has spent 18 billion yuan (HK$20.47 billion) building the 5.28 sq km site and set aside an operational budget of 10.6 billion yuan for the fair. It has spent hundreds of billions more on infrastructure in the eight-year build-up to the event.
On paper, the expo's opening weekend seemed to have everything going for it - glorious blue skies, an immense media blitz and a three-day weekend for the Labour Day holiday. Tickets for the first three days sold out months in advance.
Soaring temperatures, coupled with huge queues for popular pavilions and next to no protection from the sun, were widely blamed for the low turnout. Thin clouds and cool breezes kept conditions more bearable yesterday - yet still the people stayed away. There were signs the expo was in trouble even before it began. A month ahead of the opening, Shanghai Communist Party secretary Yu Zhengsheng unexpectedly issued one free ticket for every family in the city - seven million altogether, a tenth of the targeted total.
Chaotic scenes during a six-day pre-opening period last month were given extensive coverage.
Online, the fair has been widely panned particularly for the high cost of the tickets and the food on site and poor reviews of exhibits.
Expo organisers set a target of 70 million visitors because the record attendance for a world expo was 64.2 million in 1970 in Osaka, Japan.
Publicly, expo organisers have been at a loss to explain the number of visitors. During press conferences over the first three days, expo director Hong Hao said those who had bought the premium tickets might have 'made alternative travel plans' during the holiday weekend and could return later to use the tickets.
'Some people say the weather is very hot. There has also been a lot of television coverage lately, showing all sorts of expo pavilions,' he said on Monday. '[Perhaps] a lot of people are watching the television and not coming to the expo. There are all sorts of explanations.'
However, the upside for the low numbers was that those who went had a far better time. Crowds were relatively sparse across the whole site, even in the European and Asian sectors, which have been the biggest hit with visitors so far.
Top pavilions such as those of Italy, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and Japan remained comparably mobbed, but queues were well down on the four-hour waits seen on Saturday and Sunday.
'I've been waiting for about an hour and a half,' said one man about to enter the German building, another major crowd puller. 'I think that's acceptable.'
Ping Yulan, a Shanghai housewife queuing with her neighbour outside the British pavilion in the early afternoon, said they had already visited the pavilions of the US, Canada, France and a handful of smaller attractions - a nearly impossible feat in the preceding two days.
'I've had a lovely time,' she said. 'Any ordinary museum in Shanghai costs at least 90 yuan, but we've been able to get into all these different places with one ticket of just 140 yuan.'
Staff at several national pavilions said they were unconcerned by the lower than projected attendance, with some saying it simply made crowd control much easier.
There have been complaints that the price to visit the expo is too expensive, with the tickets each costing, in yuan: 140yuan