The spread of Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent battering of the global economy resulted in a delay in many international events, including the Olympics and the UEFA Euro 2020.

The much-hyped Expo 2020, to be held in Dubai, was postponed as well as the health crisis brought global travel industry to a standstill.

Due to the quickly escalating situation, in April 2020 the organisers of Expo 2020 backed a proposal to postpone the event for a year. Many participating countries, had also requested this delay so they could gain time to tackle the virus.

“Many countries have been significantly impacted by Covid-19 and they have therefore expressed a need to postpone the opening of Expo 2020 Dubai by one year in order to enable them to overcome this challenge,” said Expo 2020 Director General Reem al-Hashimy last year. “The UAE and Expo 2020 Dubai have listened, and in the spirit of solidarity and unity, we supported the proposal to explore a one-year postponement.”

The delay was a major blow for Dubai as the emirate – which would have spent over $8 billion on Expo-related infrastructure projects by the end of the fair – was relying on the event to boost its economy.

However, S&P Global expects UAE economy to recover this year, partly thanks to Expo 2020, which would take place from October 2021 to March 2022.

“We are committed to hosting Expo in October 2021. We are following all the guidelines; all the international guidelines on how to deal with Covid-19, social distancing,” the event’s Chief Development and Delivery Officer Ahmed al-Khatib said in January 2021.

The organisers were ready for all scenarios and expected the doors to open on October 1, 2021 however, with the pandemic raging around the world once again, there are questions over the viability of hosting international public events.

Japanese officials have also time and again stated that the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics may not go ahead this summer as planned. This month, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned the rising infections could make holding the games “really difficult”.

“The situation is constantly shifting,” said Hidemasa Nakamura, the top organising committee official overseeing logistical preparations for the games. “Even in the last few months the coronavirus situation has changed massively, and it will continue to do so, and it’s very challenging to continue preparations when we don’t know what the situation will be in the future.”

However, Dubai remains optimistic for holding Expo 2020 this year and it expects to attract millions of foreign visitors from all across the globe.

With a successful vaccination drive, UAE has contained infections significantly and has therefore, decided to carry on with the mega event.

Pakistan’s participation

In exclusive comments to The Express Tribune, Adviser to Prime Minister on Commerce Abdul Razak Dawood said that Expo 2020 is the biggest event ever in the Asian region and it has an overarching theme of ‘Connecting Minds, Creating the Future.’

He detailed that 190 nations would be participating in the mega event and each country would have an opportunity to present to the world its history, culture, natural endowments, human prowess and skill that make them unique.

The entire site of the event would be divided into three main sub-theme districts: opportunity, mobility and sustainability.

Last month, Dawood announced completion of construction of the Pakistan’s Pavilion for Expo 2020 Dubai and added that it has been handed over to the government of Pakistan.

Giving further details on the Pakistan’s pavilion, the adviser highlighted that it is located in the Opportunity District.

The theme for Pakistan’s Pavilion is ‘Pakistan: The Hidden Treasure.’ “The Expo 2020 will be an excellent opportunity to connect with the world and it will give the Pakistani business community access to networking with the international market and investors,” he said.

“The primary aim of the pavilion is to enhance tourism, commerce and investment in the country by revealing the undiscovered potential and possibilities of Pakistan,” he said. “The hidden treasures of Pakistan will be presented through an immersive, multi-sensory experience exploring rich history, incredible lands, cultural and religious diversity, rich craft tradition and the economic potential.”

He stressed that the pavilion would take visitors through a timeless journey from one of the world’s earliest recorded civilization to the challenges of the new millennium.

He added that the participation would be leveraged through a series of business, investment and cultural side events in line with Expo week themes to manage the business image of Pakistan as a modern and progressive country.

Speaking about the sectors that would benefit from the Expo 2020, he underlined that the entire economy of Pakistan would reap fruits of the event.

“Be it hospitality industry or trade and commerce, an improved image of the country as a safe, reliable, progressive and industrious nation will have positive spill over effects for all segments of the society and economy,” he said.

When asked which Pakistani companies would be taking part in Expo 2020, he pointed out that it is a thematic event with no direct presence of companies or corporates. However, many Pakistani corporates have generously contributed to the building of the pavilion and other activities, he noted. “The donors will be part of the programme activities and they will have an opportunity to participate in the theme events related to their area of business,” he remarked. “Besides, chambers of commerce and industry, and different trade associations will also be invited to take active part in the business and trade related activities.”

Limitations from Covid-19

When asked whether Covid-19 could significantly restrict the benefits of Expo 2020 for Pakistan, he said there is no doubt that the entire world is facing challenging times. “However, our own experience also tells that Pakistan’s resilient economy has survived the initial shocks and we have emerged stronger compared to other economies,” he said. “Countries around the world are rapidly moving to vaccinate their citizens in a bid to normalise business.”

UAE is also aiming for 100% immunisation by June 2021 and many other countries are following the same timelines.

Besides, the dynamics of the trade and commerce world are changing fast with adoption of latest technology.

“The entire world is adopting the new normal and Pakistan also has to adopt modern business techniques, and ensure its presence at international forums and platforms to show the world that the country is reliable and dependable even in challenging times,” he said. “Our economic policies are also aimed at the same endeavor.”

Speaking about the expected turnout at Expo 2020, the adviser detailed that UAE was expecting 25 million visitors from all across the globe during the six-month period and that currently, authorities were developing medical codes for travellers to provide safe environment for all participants and visitors.

“It is hoped that with rapid vaccination drive across the globe, countries will quickly exit the challenges posed by the pandemic and move towards a better future for the mankind,” he said.

Finally talking about the prospects of Dubai lifting the visa ban for Pakistanis, he said that these are challenging times not only for Pakistan but for nations all across the globe. “There are around 1.5 million Pakistanis in UAE at this point in time contributing to a better future for their host country as well as Pakistan in one way or the other,” he said. “Pakistan and UAE enjoy deep political and brotherly relations.”

He clarified that the visa restrictions are not political in nature and UAE was slowly and cautiously easing visa regime for all travellers from the world as it moved to ensure a safer environment.

The UAE missions in Pakistan are making special arrangements to handle large influx of visa requests from Pakistanis during the six months of Expo. “So definitely in a short time we will see improvement in visa regime of UAE for Pakistan as well,” he said.

Impact on tourism sector

According to Akays Travels founder Anas Ahsan Khan, Expo 2020 would significantly help in reviving the tourism industry of Pakistan that is currently hurting due to the virus.

The event would enable Pakistan to showcase its culture and tourism avenues at an international level which will attract foreign businessmen and officials to visit and explore the country.

Giving further insights of the present state of the tourism sector, he said travel agents, tourist guides and hospitality industry were experiencing a severe liquidity crunch.

“Not only that, airlines have also resorted to downsizing to escape bankruptcy,” he said. “It has been over a year since the first lockdown was imposed. However, things in the tourism sector have remained at a standstill.”

However, Expo 2020 promises to alleviate some of that hardship. “It will give an opportunity to foreign investors to explore our nation and set up their ventures in Pakistan,” he said. “I believe successful marketing of Pakistan by officials at the event can make a significant impact on the number of foreign tourists in Pakistan over the next few years.”

“This is different than usual expos where countries and companies get only three to five days to pitch their products and ideas,” he said.

Speaking about the possible drawbacks of the event, he said due to global financial crunch, foreign investors might be reluctant to invest because uncertainty still looms over the financial front. “Countries are trying their best to support their economies and introducing different options such as pumping liquidity or bailing out firms but at the same time, this is reducing purchasing power parity and it might ultimately affect the amount of investment that comes to Pakistan through Expo 2020,” he said.