Updated: Sep 24, 2021
(Note: Urso originally published this post on November 14, 2011, as part of a collaboration with Expo 2012 Yeosu. We're publishing it here posthumously. The original post can be accessed here)
In Shanghai at Expo 2010, they became a mania with lines stretching down the block to buy them. Forty-three years earlier, it got its start at Montreal’s Expo ’67. It’s the Expo passport: a souvenir that starts out as a simple little book with mostly empty pages but, by the end of your world’s fair experience, becomes a one-of-a-kind document of your trip.
Expo ’67: A Tradition Begins
It all started in Montreal. Fair organizers came up with the grand idea of issuing the passports as part of one’s ticket to the Expo ’67 site. They issued them in both adult and youth versions and, by today’s standards, didn’t need quite as many pages. Although sixty-seven participating nations was quite an achievement at the time, you need a lot more pages now to accommodate the 100+ nations that typically attend contemporary world’s fairs. Where’s your Croatia stamp to go, after all?
Expo 2010: Shanghai’s Passport Craze
Last year, in Shanghai, Expo merchants had no idea what they were in for when they stocked their shelves full of Expo 2010 passports. Rumors emerged that completed passports could be sold online for many times their original value. Although, I suspect the demand for such items was highly exaggerated to put it mildly, some locals bought dozens of them and dutifully went from pavilion to pavilion getting each one stamped. Sadly, many of these same people didn’t get the chance to truly experience the pavilions they were in. It got so frenzied; in fact, that some pavilions stopped issuing stamps altogether or had to create separate areas for passport stamps in order to keep the exits from being blocked. Even buying the passports became difficult and stores would quickly run out. It reminded me somewhat of Holland’s tulip bulb mania of the 17th Century.
In the midst of this mania, however, many folks, particularly younger people, patiently waited for their one stamp at each pavilion. It’s these passports that are likely to be the ones cherished decades from now as they tell the story of their Expo 2010 visit. The real value in the passports isn’t monetary, but in encapsulating memories.
The lesson here? Collect passport stamps only if you feel it won’t get in the way of truly experiencing the pavilions.
I remember one clever pavilion host from Malawi only stamping passports after visitors were able to identify Malawi on a map of Africa.
In my own collection, the stamps will sometimes help me recall specific exhibits or personal interactions I had with pavilion staff. I remember chatting with the staff of the Republic of Georgia Pavilion at Hanover, Germany’s Expo 2000 while I was getting my passport stamped. When they found out I’d grown up in Atlanta, they got all excited. Atlanta (the capital of the U.S. State of Georgia) is sister cities with Tblisi, the capital of the Republic of Georgia. Many of the staff had been to my hometown and wanted to tell me about their experiences there.
Designs: The Big and the Small of it
Back in 1967, the pavilions’ stamps were simple, very much like the ones you get in a real passport. Over the years, they’ve evolved to have different designs. Now, pavilion stamps reflect their national character or their “nation brand” while some pay homage to a given exposition’s theme or the pavilion’s design. Sometimes large countries will have tiny, tiny stamps while small countries you might not know much about might have stamps that cover the whole page. We’re looking at you, Brunei!
Typically, pavilions will place the stamps at the exit, but sometimes it isn’t always obvious or they’re somewhat hidden. As I’ve visited various world’s fairs around the world, I’ve tried learning various phrases in the local languages, but the one phrase I always seem to learn, by the end of my trip, is “Where’s your stamp?” Sometimes the answer leads to bigger conversations than you might first expect.
It sounds corny, but it’s true. It really is that kind of inter-cultural communication that makes expos worthwhile and necessary.