Can you imagine arriving at a fair at 6:30 am in mid-summer and seeing hundreds of thousands of visitors already lined up at the entrance, anxiously waiting for the gates to open at 9:30 am? And would you think these visitors were crazy to spend another 6-9 hours waiting in lines to enter temporary buildings without even knowing what’s inside them? This is no hypothetical scenario—this is what has been happening in Shanghai every day since late spring.

The World Expo 2010 Shanghai China, which runs from May 1 to October 31, marks China’s first chance to host a world exposition. More than a few world records are likely to tumble, as the Shanghai expo’s total budget is ¥286.8 billion ($42.1 billion), 3.5 times more than the most expensive world expo—the 2005 expo in Aichi, Japan. Covering nearly 5.3 km2, the Shanghai expo is twice as large as the 1970 expo in Osaka, Japan. Furthermore, the Shanghai expo has 242 participating countries, regions, and organizations, breaking the record of 172 set by the 2000 expo in Hanover, Germany. Shanghai expo officials estimate it will host roughly 70 million visitors, topping Osaka’s record of 64.2 million.

Before entering the Shanghai expo, I asked myself how it could attract more than 400,000 visitors per day despite the heat and long wait times. I considered whether visitors were drawn to view the uniquely designed pavilions, the display of “exotic” foreign art and cultural relics, or the short, high-tech three- and four-dimensional movie clips. Because people can enjoy most of the above selling points on the Internet without having to travel and wait in line, these explanations didn’t seem good enough, however.

As I studied the crowds at the expo, I considered new explanations. Surprisingly, I saw almost no foreign tourists during my one-day trip in the expo park. Instead, it seemed like the visitors forming the long lines were Chinese coming from all over the country. For many of them, the expo is likely similar to a “Disney Wonderland,” full of entertaining programs and sites. When entering the pavilions, these visitors also seemed more interested in getting their “passport” (a souvenir that looks like a real passport) stamped than in taking a serious tour of the pavilions and displays. Though most of the Chinese tourists could recite the Shanghai expo’s theme, “Better City, Better Life,” few of them actually visited the Urban Best Practices Area, which presents the latest innovative design and urban living practices of major world cities. In fact, it seems like the Shanghai expo has been showcasing the outside world to the country’s 1.3 billion people rather than showing foreign tourists China. For many Chinese, the expo might be their one chance to “step” into foreign cultures, even if just for the day. As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded student ambassadors working at the USA Pavilion, they could well be the first Americans a Chinese visitor ever meets.

For foreign companies that want to operate in the China market, the expo also provides a good window through which to observe and understand potential consumers. The behavior of the crowds shows that China has huge market potential for many businesses, but many markets and consumers are still underdeveloped and need to be nurtured. It is also important to realize that China doesn’t have a single united market. Instead, various socio-economic levels and cultural and demographic conditions separate China into many small local markets with specific needs. For example, consumers in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai may welcome green products, given their increasing concern about environmental protection and sustainability—and their income levels. Consumers in inland cities or in rural areas, however, generally can’t afford to pass over a conventional item for a more expensive green one.

Readers who cannot visit the expo—or who are unwilling to face the long lines—can view highlights online. Exploring the expo in person, however, gives visitors insight into more than just pavilions and displays—it also provides an opportunity to observe and better understand Chinese citizens and their cultures.

(Photo by Will Hastings via Flickr)

[author] Sheng Lu ([email protected]) is a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri and is a former research assistant at the US-China Business Council in Washington, DC. [/author]

Posted by Sheng Lu