My First Impressions of Expo 2020 Dubai
A team of three Expomuseum members attended Expo 2020 Dubai during the first two weeks of November 2021. During this time, I discovered that each one of us had different perspectives that led to different impressions. What was wonderful to me, others didn't even notice; what was my favorite pavilion, others thought it was just OK; what was a concise message to me, others found confusing.
For this reason, instead of creating general lists of "best attractions" and "best pavilions", we'll share our individual impressions about what we liked, what we thought worked well, and what we believe could get some improvement. In the end, we hope our recommendations help you have your own unique experience at Expo 2020 Dubai.
What makes Expo 2020 Dubai a great Expo?
Expo 2020 Dubai is one of the best Expos I've attended. The balance between exhibits and events contributes to a nicer visit. The abundance of restaurants makes it easy to discover new cuisines. I find that Expo 2020 Dubai stands out from past Expos in three main ways: first, the Expo site design and its plans for the future; second, a pavilion for each country; and third, online broadcasting.
District 2020: A smart city
After Expo 2020 Dubai closes, the expo site will become the heart of District 2020, a smart city that will serve as a creative hub. The urban planning that went into defining the future of the expo site is useful in the present, as the Expo happens. In addition to having a pedestrian-friendly layout, the expo site has integrated transportation and operations services in a way that doesn't interfere with the visitor experience. The People Mover bus system is invisible to pedestrians, but still easily reachable, and a great number of pavilions can be accessed by cars and service trucks without visitors noticing. While we'll have to wait some years to see if District 2020 materializes as planned, the incorporation of good urban practices makes the Expo more enjoyable.
Photo courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai
One country, one pavilion
Joint pavilions have traditionally provided a shared space to countries that can't afford to participate in an Expo. Host countries cover a significant part of the participation expenses, but that comes with limitations. In several cases, national exhibitions in joint pavilions do not reflect a country in a dignified way. Many of us who have visited several Expos have witnessed countries in joint pavilions that are represented by a souvenir shop, or an empty desk with tourism posters in the background.
As far as I know, Expo 2020 Dubai is the first Expo to have one pavilion for each country, which I believe is a step forward towards a more dignified presence for each participating country. While this doesn't guarantee quality exhibits, it gives countries their own space to create within.
Photos courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai
Expo 2020 Dubai has been exceptional in allowing people around the world follow events and exhibits online. Unlike previous efforts to create a virtual Expo through 3D models, Expo 2020 Dubai uses 360° photography to show actual pavilions. In addition to Expo TV, which broadcasts 24/7, Expo 2020 Dubai has created several subchannels on YouTube. Expo Live is one of my favorites, as it gives video a human touch by including commentators and guides that travel in real-time around the Expo site, interviewing staff and showing pavilions, attractions, events, and restaurants while allowing viewers to interact live.
Screenshot of Expo Live, Expo 2020 Dubai
My favorite pavilions (so far)
I have visited about 50 pavilions, and my top five so far are Morocco, Germany, Japan, Spain, and Australia. I expect to come back to the Expo site and visit the rest of the pavilions, so please take this list as partial recommendations rather than a definitive list of what to visit and what not to.
If there's one country that came to Expo 2020 Dubai determined to improve its image, it is Morocco. The multi-level pavilion shouts pride. The pavilion portrays the past, present, and future of Morocco, with a rich exhibit that includes architecture, original art, science, creative technology, restaurants, a souvenir shop, an open-air stage for events, and friendly hosting staff that are open to answer your questions.
A particular technology that caught my attention was used in room 3, "Moroccan Explorers", where different light colors revealed different images on the walls. It's a very simple, but creative technology that I didn't see in any other pavilion.
At least since Expo 2010 Shanghai, Germany has been perfecting its presence in World Expos by learning from previous experiences and building corporate memory. I was surprised to read on the Pavilion's website that Germany has clarity about the categories of visitors that form most of the public in Expos. Unlike other pavilions that spend considerable resources trying to attract investors and entrepreneurs, Germany understands that most visitors are regular people who want to learn something and be entertained.
An expo brings the countries of the world together to present their ideas, solutions and innovations concerning the current expo theme. Unlike a trade fair, there are no exhibitors and it’s not about B2B talks and new contracts. Expos are not primarily geared to experts in a particular field. First and foremost, they are intended for anyone and everyone – young families, schoolchildren, students, senior citizens, couples, friends and lone travelers. (Germany Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai)
The German exhibit has a clear theme and a variety of exhibits for children and adults. Through the pavilion, customized exhibits are triggered by a device that each person holds during their visit. Through a solid understanding of the nature and purpose of Expos, Germany has developed an exhibition model that offers knowledge in layers, where messages on each exhibit are brief and easy to understand, but a friendly and very professional hosting staff is available for visitors who want more detailed information.
Japan has an exhibit that shows the traditional and modern sides of its culture. With a well-balanced mix of philosophy and technology, the exhibit talks about the role that each person has in solving global problems. Two exhibits that captured my attention were room 3, where daily-life objects serve to create miniature worlds as a way to see things from different perspectives, and room 5, where mist makes everyone around you disappear for a moment, and you're exposed to yourself as an individual. Japan will be the host of Expo 2025 Osaka, the next Expo after Expo 2020 Dubai.
Photos courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai
The Spain Pavilion is one of my favorites, in part for personal reasons. I have always been curious about the influence of Arabic culture over Spain that eventually was transferred to Mexico, my country of origin. I was happy to learn many Spanish words that came from Arabic, through a section in the pavilion dedicated to this topic.
The rest of the exhibition was very good, particularly a film that is a bit abstract, but very well crafted. Spain, like Germany, has been able to give continuity to its participation in Expos through sustained government efforts. In addition to that, more and more Spanish companies are specializing in creating top-quality exhibits for Expos and other major events. It is common to see Spanish companies creating exhibits for theme pavilions at different Expos. It seems that Spain as a whole is benefiting from an accumulation of expertise in Expos that occurs in parallel at the public and private sectors.
Photos courtesy of Expo 2020 Dubai
At Expo 2020 Dubai, Australia and other countries (Canada, New Zealand, Peru, USA) have paid more attention to their indigenous people that other countries with large native populations. Australia's message resonated because it embraced an indigenous perspective as its national message. In room 2, an animated film projected on a dome explains that Australians see the sky as a reflection of what happens on Earth. While I believe this is not the view of many Australians with European ancestry, I liked that this time it was the turn of the indigenous point of view to represent the country.
What would make Expo 2020 Dubai better?
While the Expo operates better than previous Expos in terms of the visitor experience, there are few aspects that need immediate attention or could be implemented to improve the Expo for the months to come.
Communicate changes to the metro schedule
During the two weeks that I visited Expo 2020 Dubai, the last metro consistently left one hour earlier than advertised. This was a cause of deep frustration (and extra expenses) for me and for several visitors and Expo staff.
Improve Internet connectivity on the Expo site
More and more countries are using augmented reality or other Internet tools in their exhibits, but frequently I couldn't use them because of connectivity problems to the Expo network.
Add more entertainment
If there is something that made Expo 2012 Yeosu very enjoyable, it was the abundance of well-selected street performers from many parts of the world. During my visit to Expo 2020 Dubai I saw an increase in these type of shows, but frequently there were areas of the site that needed more life. Expo 2020 Dubai would also benefit from small artistic performances in more stages across the site. Expo 1998 Lisbon was great in this aspect, to the point that sometimes it was hard to choose from the different options happening at the same time.
Invite more top artists from around the world
For a country with the importance and resources of the United Arab Emirates, top artists have been missing at Expo 2020 Dubai. A few days after I left the UAE, I learned about Alicia Keys planning to perform at the Expo, but so far that's the only big name I have heard of. Expo 1998 Lisbon and Expo 2020 Hannover had concerts of such artists as Ray Charles, BB King, Foo Fighters, Garbage, Ringo Starr, Scorpions, and many other top artists from around the world. If Expo 2020 Dubai wants to attract as many visitors as expected, and to give them a memorable experience, top artists are one of the best ways to go.
What has been your experience at Expo 2020 Dubai?
I hope my views help make your experience at Expo 2020 Dubai a bit more enjoyable. It is a great Expo, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. Please let me know if you have other suggestions or if you interpreted these pavilions differently than me. You can contact me through our contact form or by leaving a comment.