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Expo.02 ends in the red

The money shredder at Expo was no match for the exhibition itself Keystone

There will be no shortage of red figures when Expo.02 closes its books and sends its accountants home for the last time.

Critics may be divided over the national exhibition’s cultural legacy, but few are arguing that Expo has been anything but a financial black hole.

The event – postponed for one year after it was plagued by a series of management and financial problems – cost some SFr1.5 billion ($1 billion) to stage.

Sponsorship money, as well as revenue from tickets, food and beverage, and souvenir sales, fell well short of expectations.

“Expo.02 was not worth the money, we paid way too much for what we got in return,” said Jacques Neirynck, a parliamentarian from the centre-right Christian Democratic Party.

“That money was not available for other things that are much more important, such as education, pensions and health care,” he told swissinfo.

Exhibition organisers received a sum of close to half a billion francs in government funding for the project, but recent figures suggest the event will still show a deficit of around SFr550 million – with Swiss taxpayers having to meet the shortfall.

Expo’s management and many others take a different view. “It’s not fair to talk about a flop with over nine million ticket sales,” Martin Heller, Expo’s artistic director, told swissinfo.

“It’s the biggest event this country has seen and its impact on the people will be very long term – even though that alone isn’t enough to pay our bills.”

Out of control

As the cost of planning and building the national exhibition sites spiralled out of control, Expo.02 organisers were forced time and again to return to parliament with a begging bowl – most recently in September of this year.

During the early stages of planning, the government earmarked around SFr150 million for the event.

But by the time the books finally close on the project, the public purse will have forked out more than six times that amount. Organisers say they need SFr95 million for closing costs alone – parliament will vote on that credit in December.

“We fought with all our might for this budget… it was humiliating to have to go and ask for money again, and hear it said each time that we were incompetent,” said the director of Expo.02, Nelly Wenger.

Parliament approved all the appeals for cash made by Expo’s management though many politicians – including Neirynck – voted against requests for additional credit.

Millions of visitors

Those in charge of staging the event – which took place simultaneously on four lakeside sites in western Switzerland – accept there were financial upsets, but argue that Expo.02 did succeed in attracting more than ten million visits.

According to research carried out by exhibition organisers, 90 per cent of those who bought tickets were happy to have made the trip to Expo.

“I don’t know whether the money was well spent or not,” said Anne-Käthi Schöb, a visitor to Expo. “But it was great and it offered a lot to the public. It was something extraordinary, offering a variety of interesting experiences.

“And it wasn’t typically Swiss – there was a lot of imagination in the event. Even though it cost a lot, I would say it was worth it.”

The exhibition attracted the highest praise for its artistic events and for its architecture, which included a giant, rusty monolith on Lake Murten and the futuristic ‘arteplages’ in Biel, Yverdon and Neuchâtel.

“Expo was a success in terms of providing entertainment,” Hans-Ulrich Jost, professor of contemporary history at the University of Lausanne, told swissinfo.

High expectations

Franz Steinegger, president of Expo.02, said one of the main problems was that expectations about the financial viability of the project were set unrealistically high.

“We started in 1997 with the hope – and parliament had this hope too – that about SFr800 million would be contributed by sponsors,” Steinegger told swissinfo.

But when some promises of corporate sponsorship failed to materialise – or, as in the case of the collapsed national carrier, Swissair, had to be withdrawn – organisers had no choice but to turn to the government to make up the shortfall.

Wenger hopes Expo’s widely publicised financial problems will not cloud people’s long-term memories of the exhibition.

“It’s a miracle we have been able to put this Expo together and also make it a success. It’s beautiful, people love it and neighbouring countries have been impressed,” Wenger said.

“It is true that we lost money, I accept this. But does that really justify calling the whole thing a debacle?”

swissinfo, Karin Kamp

Expo.02 will eventually cost Swiss taxpayers around SFr1 billion.
The government initially expected to spend just SFr150 million.
Organisers say it was worth the cost, having attracted some ten million visits.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR