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Thursday, June 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Is German Expo a failure even before it gets started?

Los Angeles Times

HANOVER, Germany - There are no awesome engineering feats such as the Eiffel Tower or London's Crystal Palace, no thrills like the first Ferris wheel that awed visitors to Chicago in 1893.

Expo 2000 - the world's fair opening today in Hanover - does offer a detailed presentation of the world's environmental problems and how to resolve them.

But can strict edification - at $32 per person - compel the hoped-for 40 million visitors to head for this windswept provincial town decidedly lacking in charm and fun? Will exhibits explaining a natural pulping process or a method of making paper cups into pencils keep kids entertained without rides and amusements?

Organizers insist they are satisfied, but pollsters and pundits already are raining on Hanover's parade. They predict the five-month extravaganza will cost German taxpayers far more than the $185 million they already are expected to lose.

Those responsible for Germany's first world's fair have put a brave face on Hanover's prospects, despite devastating setbacks such as Washington's last-minute announcement that there would be no U.S. pavilion for the first time since world's fairs began 149 years ago. The United States is launching a Web site promoting cultural events - including readings by writers William Styron and Art Buchwald - parallel to the fair.

Fair officials deny that in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous entertainment, visitors to events like Expo 2000 are becoming harder to impress.

Although there is no U.S. national exhibit, McDonald's and Coca-Cola are everywhere to be seen. A handful of private companies with international profiles, including IBM and Daimler Chrysler, have sponsored their own presentations. Carlos Santana, B.B. King and Britney Spears are among the fair's entertainers.

Guided by the far-reaching theme "Humankind, Nature, Technology - A Whole New World," the millennial world's fair - which has been a decade in the making - focuses on how people and their machinery can ease the impact both have on the planet.

This week's Der Spiegel magazine reported a survey in which 54 percent of 1,000 Germans interviewed said they were absolutely certain to skip Expo 2000. Of that polled group, another 34 percent were doubtful they would go, although the bulk of attendance is expected to come from the host country.

German media also disclosed this week that only 20,000 tickets had been sold for today's gala opening - a far cry from the nearly 300,000 visitors a day needed to meet the 40 million forecast. And Deutsche Bahn, the German railroad, acknowledges that the bulk of its expanded service to Hanover is still unsold.

The first World's Fair, in 1851, was conceived by Britain's Prince Albert as a vehicle for showcasing the British Empire's technological progress.

Since then, fairs have left enduring marks: The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 fair; Seattle got its trademark Space Needle for the 1962 event; Brussels, Belgium, looked to the future of atomic energy with its enlarged sculpture of an atom, still a landmark after the 1958 fair.

Inventions such as aspirin, steam engines and huge cannons were the centerpieces of fairs past. Alexander Graham Bell showed off his telephone and Thomas Edison displayed a new telegraph and a motor for bicycles.

The last such event sanctioned by the Paris-based International Expositions Bureau, or BIE - the 1998 fair in Lisbon, Portugal - drew only 10 million visitors, leaving organizers and exhibitors deeply in debt.

"For those with doubts about world expos, I can tell you they have a bright future. They are not going to be done in by the Internet," BIE President Gilles Noghes insisted during a preview of the 420-acre fairgrounds, which take nine hours to negotiate on top of time spent at exhibits.

But other initiators of the Hanover event already were looking for scapegoats before the electromagnetic security gates even opened.

Countries and organizations that paid millions to be in this fair are "very disappointed" that the United States couldn't manage to mount a national presence, complained Ole Philipson, head of Expo 2000's steering committee.

Germany's government is footing 40 percent of the $1.56 billion cost of staging the fair, with local and state governments providing another 40 percent and German industry contributing the remainder. Income from ticket sales and concessions - based on the 40 million attendance figure - should reimburse all but $185 million of the investment, officials say.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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