A Māori karakia was met with the beating of Khaleeji drums as the sun rose over Dubai on Thursday morning (local time), as the New Zealand pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai officially opened.
The dawn dedication service, or Tangaengae, to unveil NZ’s offering at the world fair, which was delayed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic but retained its original name, was performed by Whanganui Iwi and featured a welcome from an Emirati cultural group and a video address by Minister of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta.
Expo 2020 opens on Friday, October 1, and will be one of the world’s largest events to take place in the midst of the pandemic, after a summer Olympics in Tokyo that took place without spectators.
Dubai, on the other hand, reopened in July 2020 and has been aggressively marketing itself as a safe destination in the lead-up to Expo. The event is being billed as the “world’s greatest show”, with 192 countries taking part.
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The New Zealand contingent is made up of about 600 representatives, made up of private sponsors including Fonterra and Zespri, NZ Trade and Enterprise staff and entertainers.
But criticism has been lobbied at the Kiwi team in recent weeks for having the Government ring-fence 401 spots in managed isolation for Expo returnees as Kiwi expats struggle to get home. The Border Exception Ministerial Group makes allowances for MIQ spots for “large and complex groups that are considered a Government priority”.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says Cabinet has decided on a pilot for a self-isolation MIQ trial where people can isolate at home.
Thirty-eight slots were later returned, after two business initiatives intended to be in-person became virtual, New Zealand Commissioner-General to Expo 2020 Clayton Kimpton told Stuff in Dubai.
He said the majority of the MIQ slots were for “business travellers and speakers”. The remaining 363 slots would be “reviewed on a regular basis” and “a few more” could be given back.
“We can’t do this without New Zealanders here. We can’t outsource everything,” Kimpton added, referring to the public criticism.
He said preference was given to hiring performers and tradespeople overseas that would not need an MIQ spot. For instance, the cultural programme includes a Kiwi opera singer living in London and the UAE-based Kapa Haka group Ngāti Koraha.
“We’re trying as much as we can to shoulder tap New Zealanders in other parts of the world,” he said. “We’ve gone and looked at Europe, the UK, the US and also here in the UAE for the Zealanders who are able to bring that New Zealand expertise and flavour that we need.”
Kimpton says New Zealand’s participation in the event was “crucial” to help it reengage with the post-pandemic world.
“There are very few opportunities where the world gets together and has an opportunity to discuss and collaborate on the world’s future, what we do for future generations. And the world needs countries like New Zealand to be sharing our values, our innovative thinking, our care for people and place, to contribute to that discussion.
“This is an opportunity for business and government to connect with the world in one place.
“If we weren’t here, we would miss out.”
During the opening ceremony, speakers addressed the congregation in Māori, Arabic and English. Najeeb Al Ali, executive director, commissioner general office, Expo 2020 Dubai, said he was “proud” that New Zealand had chosen to take part and that NZ was “a close and committed ally to the Expo, to Dubai and to the UAE”.
In her address, Mahuta said NZ was a “nation of innovators who care for people and place”, while Gerrard Albert, of the Whanganui iwi, spoke of the significance of Emirati and NZ culture joining in “the spirit of joy, of success and hope for the future”. A rendition of Tutira Mai Nga Iwi and a haka closed out proceedings.
Alana Donnelly, who left a job in finance to take up a role as Guest Experience Ambassador for the NZ pavilion, said “I know I’ll be talking about this experience for years and years”.
“It’s an amazing opportunity to represent New Zealand but also get to share in what the rest of the world has to offer here as well,” she said.
“The world’s got to open up at some point and I’d love for us to be at the top of everyone’s list to come and visit.”
New Zealand’s appearance at the event is costing the government $61.3m – $8m more than originally planned, due to the delay.
The Government’s original budget was already a considerable investment, considering the efforts from much larger countries – the United States pavilion’s price tag is about $85m, and Germany, Europe’s largest economy, is spending about $77m.
Kimpton said it was important for Kiwis at home to know that “we’re not playing here” and the UAE was an “incredibly important market to Zealand’s economy”.
The UAE is New Zealand’s 10th largest trading partner, taking large quantities of whole milk, apples and honey.
“In the last 12 months, New Zealand exports to the GCC countries, particularly the UAE and Saudi, have grown across the board to $2.2 billion, despite the pandemic,” Kimpton says.
Twenty-eight NZ companies form the NZ pavilion’s Care Collective, a group of sponsors and suppliers supporting the event. Kimpton said many joined after Covid-19 had sent NZ into lockdown.
“Our reasons for being at Expo pre-pandemic were very, very strong. Now that we’re in a pandemic, and the longer this goes on, that’s even more important.”
Over the course of the six-month event, Kimpton said the team’s main objectives are to increase trade and foreign investment, change perceptions of the country and engage with key diplomatic and strategic partners.
A pre-pandemic tourism angle was now about “educating people” about NZ so they visit once borders reopen.
Requests had been made for a delegation of NZ ministers to visit the event, but Kimpton said no announcement had been made on who would attend or when.
The NZ pavilion’s design was first unveiled during an official visit from Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, to New Zealand in 2018.
The pavilion’s theme is kaitiakitanga, the care and connection between land and people, and was inspired by waka taonga, receptacles made by Māori to safeguard items of value.
It was designed by Jasmax, and clad in Kaynemail, a lightweight composite chain mail developed for use by actors in the Lord of the Rings movies to spare them having to wear heavy metal chain mail.
The New Zealand pavilion is located in the sustainability district of the Expo site, and sits between the Spanish and Dutch pavilions and opposite the colossal, disc-shaped Sustainability Pavilion.
The story of the Whanganui River, which was given its own legal identity in a world first law in 2017, is central to the sustainability narrative.
The pavilion’s restaurant, Tiaki, is the first for a New Zealand pavilion at a world expo since 1972 and is catered by Emirates Flight Catering.
Renowned Kiwi choreographer Parris Goebel is the creative director for the entertainment and cultural programme. The line-up includes Six60, Kimbra, Sole Mio, Annie Crummer, Dj Sir-vere and more.
The star-studded Expo 2020 opening ceremony takes place on Thursday night, headlined by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and British popstar Ellie Goulding, and curated by Belgian theatre director Franco Dragone – known for his work with Cirque du Soleil.