How NZ has put itself back in front of the world at Dubai's Expo – Stuff

David Downs is the chief executive of NZ Story, a government agency involved in New Zealand’s participation at the World Expo.
OPINION: I’m writing this on a flight from Dubai back to Auckland – my first international trip in over two years.
Putting aside the fact that I lost some of my frequent flyer cool by holding up the queue at customs when I couldn’t get my shoes off, and forgetting to print out my PCR test results (post-covid rookie error), the experience of international travel again was comforting and familiar – and mind-bending, in the way that travel expands your world view, making you unfamiliar and yet connected to the rest of the world.
The reason for my short escape from New Zealand was to get to the World Expo in Dubai before it closed at the end of March.
If you’ve never been to an Expo (and I hadn’t), what I discovered was a mixture between a theme park, a business conference, and a music festival. A vast campus with more than 190 countries represented: food, culture, arts and entertainment. It’s like Big Day Out for business-people.
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Every day for the past six months, the Dubai 2020 Expo (which opened in 2021, and will close in 2022 – thanks Covid for making the logo out of date) has hosted school groups, royal visits, hip hop artists, business travellers, scientists and even the odd lowly public servant.
Twenty-million people have visited the Expo site, and with only a few days left, they were hitting record numbers every day.
Spending over $60 million, New Zealand has had a substantial presence at Expo, and yet that’s not well known back home – possibly because we’ve been a bit inwards-looking for the past two years.
The border closure has meant that our experience of the wider world is filtered through the media or the “reckons” of your echo chamber in social media.
It’s hard to think globally when our information is mostly local, or reprinted news articles about places we can only dimly remember. So does that mean our presence was a waste of time?
I don’t think so – for a small, trading nation like New Zealand, it’s so important we keep a global view. Dylan said it in the 60s, and it’s even more relevant now: The times they are a changing, and our danger as a country is that we will be forgotten.
Being present at occasions like Expo keeps Brand NZ relevant and present, when we can’t actually be present. In fact for me, that’s one of the major benefits to the timing of this Expo: for two years, New Zealand has effectively had no foreign visitors – at least compared to “normal times”, but through our presence at Expo, we’ve welcomed more than 1 million visitors to at least a slice of Aotearoa New Zealand.
They’ve seen video of New Zealand’s innovations, people and landscapes; they experienced a pavilion themed around our rivers and water; they ate at the stylish and contemporary restaurant we set up on site – but more importantly they got to feel.
The NZ pavilion is an emotional experience, full of feeling, of spirit, wairua, and demonstrating NZ’s value of care. Care of the people who live here, and the land we are on. No wonder it was so popular.
A presence at Expo helps build what’s called “soft power” – a country’s relevance and ability to influence others.
We aren’t a country of ”hard power”, so we need every opportunity we can get to link with and influence others.
Our pavilion was probably the busiest international outreach activity for NZ in the past two years: in the three days I was there, the team running it hosted ministers from other countries, met holy men from India, helped business deals get done – and there was even a royal visit.
That was very entertaining – with just a couple of hours’ notice, 48 people including a sheik and his entourage turned up for lunch, which they asked to be a three-course affair – and they only had 25 minutes to eat. The pavilion team delivered a sumptuous lunch with barely any visible stress, and we were all amused when the prince asked for a kiwiburger to take away. Beetroot and egg are apparently great tools in cultural diplomacy.
There are too many stories to relay but one other experience that will stay with me was the way the Expo community seems to have come together to support Ukraine.
When the war started, many of the pavilions headed over to their Ukraine colleagues to console them.
The Ukrainians emptied out their pavilion displays and have it now as a place where people can go and reflect, and write messages of goodwill and support. The walls are plastered in post-it notes in all the languages of the world.
In true Kiwi style, our team invited their equivalents to our pavilion the night I was there, and hosted a quiet drink – a moment of companionship. I was lucky enough to meet Daniel, a Ukrainian cultural designer who told me how his parents had coincidentally arrived a few days before war broke out, and were now living with him in his one-bedroom on-site accommodation. They had no idea what they were going to do when they had to leave.
Gestures like hosting a small function for a much larger nation is not only the right thing to do, it helps build NZ’s relevance to the world and remind us we are part of the global community.
The money spent to be there will be paid back through new trade agreements, business deals done, visitors we welcome here again soon, students who come here to be educated – and the people around the world, who now hold a special memory of New Zealand. So no, our presence was not a waste of time, or money.
My only regret was that more New Zealanders couldn’t get to feel the warm pride I did as our team in Dubai (including a bunch of young Kiwis who were sent up to help) did us proud.
We showed that we can foot it with the best, and that New Zealand isn’t just a place of beautiful landscapes, and a great place to visit: we’re also welcoming, caring about the planet we live on, and an equal part of the global community.
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