The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Lessons from botched bid

Better information gathering, analysis needed in future bids for international events

By Korea Herald

Published : Dec. 6, 2023 - 05:30

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Busan lost its bid to host the World Expo 2030 last week after spending hundreds of billions of won over the course of a year and half. President Yoon Suk Yeol apologized to South Koreans saying that it was all his fault, and the mayor of Busan said his city is considering trying again for the next expo in 2035.

The fact that the South Korean bidding team, at least officially, didn’t see Riyadh’s landslide victory coming until the last minute was disconcerting. The Saudi Arabian capital won a two-thirds majority with 119 votes against Busan's 29 votes and Rome’s 17 votes.

Scanning through Korean news headlines prior to the vote at the Paris-based Bureau International des Expositions, one would have thought Busan had a chance. Busan Mayor Park Heong-joon said two days before the vote that with a probability of over 90 percent, he thought Korea would advance through to the second round, which would take place if no candidate received two-thirds of the votes in the first round.

It was, however, a long shot from the beginning when Busan entered the race a year after Riyadh did.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to invest $25 billion in Africa, proposed $10 billion to finance and insure Saudi exports and vowed an additional $5 billion in development financing for African countries by 2030. The oil-rich state has also promised large investments in and loans to Central and South American nations, and capped its campaign off with lavish treats for BIE delegates in and around Paris.

As Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pushes to revamp the kingdom’s international image, the country is also set to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games, the 2034 FIFA World Cup and the Asian Games around the 100th anniversary of the kingdom’s founding in 2032. Saudi Arabia allocated some $7.8 billion to host the expo.

President Yoon’s national security adviser, Cho Tae-yong, said Sunday in a televised interview that as Korea made the bid belatedly, it was extremely difficult to change the minds of countries that already promised support to other bidders.

Saudi’s petrodollar power aside, a short video shown at the end of Busan’s final presentations at the BIE -- in which K-pop stars including Psy, Korean classical musicians and an award-winning actor said “your choice” -- came across as out of touch to many Koreans.

Whether a more relevant and appealing video about Busan would have led to a different outcome is questionable, given Saudi’s sway, but it would have at least avoided such public dismay over how dull and behind the times people in charge of these things can be -- a drawback for Busan’s possible bid for the subsequent expo in 2035.

Before Busan makes any decisions, it must be more scrupulous in gauging the costs and economic effects of an expo.

Local authorities estimated that an expo in Busan would bring economic benefits worth 61 trillion won ($47 billion) and attract over 50 million visitors. Previous expos in Dubai in 2021 and Milan in 2015, however, recorded about 24 million and 22 million visits, respectively.

The Osaka World Expo in 2025 is beset by mounting costs, construction delays and dwindling public support. A number of countries have canceled their participation in the six-month-long event. In a poll of Japanese adults conducted by Kyodo News a month ago, 68.6 percent of the respondents said the expo was “unnecessary.”

Rather than stressing how tirelessly officials and business leaders on the bidding committee have traveled around the world since its launch in July last year, the Korean government should focus on gathering accurate information and forming solid strategies if it ever decides to bid for a similar event again.

Yoon said he met some 150 times with leaders of 96 countries, and spoke on the phone with dozens of others to woo them. While such efforts helped broaden Seoul’s diplomatic horizons, he and his aides should now work on making every conversation candid and meaningful.