Expo Dubai 2020: First Impression, Second Reflection

By Omari Joseph @theunspecialist

In 2021, Guyana had its first-ever standalone pavilion at the World Expo. Guyana used that historic stage to market its tourism product and investment opportunities. Minister of Tourism, Industry and Commerce, Hon. Oneidge Walrond noted that Expo 2020 Dubai ‘is a perfect, somewhat unrivalled opportunity for us to showcase Destination Guyana to the world. There will be millions of people traversing that venue, and there is no better time for us to market ourselves.’

Minister Walrond was right. Guyana has remained relatively unknown globally, even after becoming an oil-producing nation and one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. This obscurity made Expo 2020 Dubai the ideal chance for Guyana to make a first impression. Many Guyanese observing from home thought the expo meant that the delegation got a fancy trip to one of the world’s most popular destinations. So the question on many minds was, ‘How important is Expo 2020 Dubai?’

The World Expo (also known as a World’s Fair) is a big deal, especially for the city that wins the bidding process to host the event. A last-minute entry in 2011 saw Dubai winning the right to host Expo 2020 over four other bidding cities. Ultimately, Dubai Expo 2020 was marketed as the ‘World’s Greatest Show of human brilliance and achievement.’ The expo lasted 173 days, from October 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022, and recorded over 24 million visits. The best of the world’s food, music, culture, technology, art and science was on display during the expo.

The theme of the Expo was ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’ Three sub-themes were chosen for the expo: opportunity, mobility, and sustainability, each with its corresponding pavilion and thematic district. Guyana’s pavilion was aptly placed in the opportunity district under the theme ‘Home of nature-Land of Opportunity.’ The government of Guyana wanted the pavilion to be a space for creating linkages by sharing the investment potential within tourism and other sectors.

Perhaps the most important day for the pavilion was Guyana Day on October 19, 2021. It was the day when the spotlight was on Guyana and a chance for Guyana to display itself through the arts. On their Facebook page, the Ministry of Culture Youth and Sport posted, ‘Guyana’s national treasure, our Guyanese Culture, took centre stage this morning in Dubai at the World Expo 2020 É and the world loved it.’

The headline performers for Guyana were Poonam Singh, Samuel Medas, Tennicia De Freitas, Gavin Mendonca and spoken-word poet Daniela Aravjo. Other artists and dancers supported them. Local designer Randy Madray colourfully arrayed all performers in his creations. Their performances (available on the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport Facebook Page) entertained the crowd and generally received positive reviews.

Unfortunately, there are no objective measures for the success of the Guyana pavilion in attracting visitors to Guyana. However, if we view the pavilion as a place where Guyana made thousands of first impressions, the best way to measure success would be to turn inward and look at the tourism sector in Guyana. After all, the most lasting impression in tourism is seldom the first. Magazine photos may move tourists or even the videos on their screens, but the experiences on the ground are what tourists remember about a destination. It’s like the first in-person meeting with someone you met online.

Therefore, for any observer, assessing the impact of Expo 2020 Dubai becomes a matter of image vs identity. Guyana marketed itself as a business-friendly, multicultural paradise that happens to be the number one eco-tourism destination in the world. Does Guyana live up to that image? If this were a test, I would give Guyana a passing grade. Undoubtedly, a first-time tourist would come and discover a vibrantly multicultural Guyana with a bounty of refreshing options for nature-based experiences.

However, things are far from perfect locally. Significant events on the 2022 calendar, like the Caribbean Premier League and Cricket Carnival, will test the country’s accommodation capacity. Additionally, the government’s push to increase Guyana’s visibility and access to new markets will invariably result in greater demand.

Therefore, the industry must grow and develop to meet the new demand and fulfil the expectations created at events like Expo 2020 Dubai. This growth requires more focus and investment in the industry, particularly at the administrative level. For example, it may be time for Tourism to become a standalone government ministry. The growth and complexity of the sector requires special attention.

Tourism’s increasing importance to the local economy as the third-largest export sector underpins this. Government organizations supporting and developing the tourism industry, like the Guyana Tourism Authority, will require more staff to manage the increasing workload. Otherwise, administrative efforts in the local tourism sector will always be reactionary instead of proactive and visionary.

Global interest in Guyana is rapidly growing whether or not Expo 2020 Dubai had the significant impact reported by the Ministry. As we’ve seen repeatedly, Guyana shines whenever it takes centre stage. However, connecting the minds and creating the future showcased at Expo 2020 Dubai will require much more work backstage.

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