Naubet Bisenov in Almaty -
Kazakhstan's glitzy capital Astana has started preparations to host the Expo 2017 international fair. The organisers believe the project, which includes construction of all facilities from scratch, will be completed in time to allow participants to start setting up their exhibits in January 2017, despite the tight deadline.
When in 2010 Kazakhstan announced its intention, and in 2011 it submitted its bid, to host the exhibition, proponents hailed it as a chance to showcase the country's achievements, as well as its young capital, which will turn 20 the year of the exhibition. Supporters also claim the fair will give an impetus to innovative development and infrastructure.
However, for sceptics, Expo 2017 is another vanity project on which the Kazakh authorities - emboldened by successful events such as the recent chairmanship of the OSCE or 2011 Asian Winter Games - will splurge public funds. Kazakhstan is also set to host the 28th Winter Universiade in Almaty in 2017. The country's biggest city is also competing against Beijing and Oslo to host the XXIV Winter Olympic Games in 2022.
Critics argue such grand-scale events do little to promote the country. They add that the billions planned to be spent would be better used to solve social problems, as well as support the economy's struggle to return to dynamic growth.
The International Exhibitions Bureau chose Astana over the Belgian town of Liège in November, and officially recognised Astana as the host city of Expo 2017 in June, presenting Kazakhstan with the flag of the exhibition. This marked the official start of preparations for the exhibition. According to the fair rules, the host city cannot start the preparations before official recognition, but Astana had been granted an exemption because of the long, harsh winter that shortens the construction season. As a result, work kicked off in April.
Talgat Yermegiyayev, chairman of Astana Expo 2017 - the state company responsible for organisation - says that all the necessary legislation for building facilities for the event was passed last year. Even so, efficient use of the two and a half years remaining for completion is "critical," he says. Building the 1m square metres planned will be "very difficult ... almost unrealistic" in such short time, he says, before insisting that the schedule will be met "100%".
More power to green energy
The theme of the Astana Expo will be green energy, and organisers say they hope it will draw attention to sustainable development, renewable energy, and energy efficiency in Central Asia and the CIS. Kazakh power companies intend to dot the city with 100 wind turbines to make a "contribution to the inimitable look of the capital." A solid waste-recycling plant, facilities to process rainwater and sewage, and a $100m solar power station with a capacity of 50 MW are also planned.
The Expo tsar admits that at a price tag of $3bn is high, and accepts there is criticism, but rejects claims the project will not be profitable and the money could be used wisely for "more important" purposes. "Talk that the exhibition will not pay off is just groundless insinuations. I guarantee the project will be profitable," he asserts.
At the same time, he notes that the return on the investment into the fair "shouldn't be measured only in monetary terms." Future generations will remember Expo 2017 as a "project with social, educational and, finally, spiritual meaning," he says.
The government hopes that the private sector will invest at least $500m in building residential and commercial properties, as well as leisure and shopping centres for the exhibition. In order to entice local businesses to get involved in the project, the government has simplified customs procedures for goods imported from outside the Customs Union, and exempted them from duties.
Taking into account the problem of white elephants left by previous fairs around the world, authorities are placing particular stress on the use of facilities after the exhibition: hotels and other residential buildings will be converted into apartments, while pavilions and other commercial facilities will be turned into offices. "Our task is to think about the future use of all these buildings after the Expo," President Nursultan Nazarbayev said during his inspection of the Expo campus, which will cover an area of over 170 hectares, in July. "All residential properties which will serve as hotels should then be used as flats. Everything should be used."
The organisers also hope to recover some of the costs directly, via the boost that the local economy will receive from domestic and foreign tourism during the event. Over 2m people are expected to visit the fair during its three month run from June to September 2017, of whom 15% will be foreigners.
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