The lush hills of northeast Kunming will play host to the century's final garden party. The 1999 Kunming International Horticultural Exhibition - a six-month festival of flowers, plants and blue skies - opened to the public with rollicking fanfare on May 1. Expo '99 brings together participants from around the mainland and all over the world in a unique and joyous display of fauna, flora and culture. The theme of the exhibition is dubbed dauntingly 'Man and Nature Marching to the 21st Century', however the proceedings bear a mostly 'green' message appropriate to a celebration of wildlife. The fair itself is located on 218 hectares of hillside just above Kunming, the Spring City, which can be viewed as a dramatic backdrop to the arching bird-of-paradise fountain at the exposition's Century Plaza. The fair grounds are divided by an assortment of outdoor gardens, with some dedicated to bamboo, bonsai, medicinal herbs and tea. However, it is the 34 domestic gardens that are the most remarkable - each designed to capture the spirit of a territory's environs, with most displaying extraordinary care and intelligence. Shandong province, for example, has seen fit to re-create Mount Tai. Beijing's display is bordered by imperial gates which open into a princely pleasure dome. Guizhou's re-creates the province's distinctive mountain terrain. Local flora provides colour and flavour at every turn, transforming the area into the most welcome scenic park in the mainland. The international fair grounds are no less worthwhile. The gardens constructed by the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, for example, are defined by native stilt and bamboo dwellings which open into flower gardens. Pakistan's Islamic-styled garden is highlighted by a Muslim gateway facing a marble pool. The Netherlands has built a Dutch street, with windmill, which winds into hot houses displaying varieties of tulips. Within the fairgrounds there also are five massive indoor halls, three of which stand against the exhibition's main square. China Hall is the largest, with each mainland territory erecting a display of native products. Man and Nature Hall contains photographic exhibitions and video displays which, for the mainland, bear a strong environmental message about pollution, over-population, endangered wildlife and resources management. But it is the angular glass greenhouse that is, perhaps, most rewarding. Separated into three halls of alpine flowers, tropical plants, and flowers, the hot house manages to gather Yunnan's own abundant and varied horticulture inside a single building. The tropical plants hall, for example, re-creates the rain forest of Xishuangbanna - with indigenous trees and hundreds of tropical flowers 800 kilometres from home. For Yunnan province, which has invested about 1.5 billion yuan to host the exhibition, the stakes are high. The '99 Expo stands at the heart of the province's attempt to wean itself off its lucrative tobacco trade by elevating tourism and bio-resources development as key parts of the economy. In recent years, the province has invested billions of yuan to build road and air links between Kunming and provincial tourism destinations of Dali, Lijiang and Xishuangbanna as part of that effort. At the start of the month, for example, the province opened a highway linking the provincial capital with Dali, cutting travel time between the two cities from 10 hours to about four. To ensure the exhibition goes smoothly, Yunnan and Kunming also have made further infrastructure investments approaching 20 billion yuan over the past three years to build roads and hotels in the city. Fair organisers believe they can attract up to 10 million visitors to the site over the next six months, including a million foreigners. That would add substantially to the province's more than eight billion yuan per year tourist trade and secure for Yunnan a global role as a holiday destination. Yunnan governor Li Jiating said the exhibition was worth the costs. 'The International Horticultural Exhibition will promote Yunnan within China and outside China, which will benefit (the province's) economic development,' Mr Li said. The governor believed much of the investment could be recouped within eight years, when the fair grounds are converted into a bio-resources laboratories and permanent exhibition site after '99 Expo concludes.