ROME (Reuters) - Milan Expo closes its doors on Saturday after a highly successful run that defied those who predicted it would flop and debunking the stereotype view that Italians cannot queue.
More than 20 million people have visited the world fair since it opened on May 1, when builders were still struggling to complete the 110 hectare (272-acre) site on the outskirts of Milan and naysayers had already dismissed it as a costly farce.
Initial scepticism gave way to growing curiosity and in recent weeks the Expo has been deluged daily by tens of thousands of visitors, some of whom queued for up to seven hours to enter the most popular national pavilions.
“Expo has been a huge success,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said this week.
“It has been a crucial showcase for foreign investment,” said Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan. “It shows we can be a team,” said President Sergio Mattarella.
A promenade of undulating tents, bizarre buildings and innovative architecture, Expo 2015 was conceived as a celebration of food, agriculture and healthy eating, with 53 countries using the event to promote their international image.
The build up was marred by corruption scandals, which have enveloped public administration in Italy as inevitably as the winter fog cloaks Milan, but they failed to dampen interest.
It would have been possible to fly to Berlin and back in the time that it took visitors to shuffle into the German exhibit, while the line for other popular pavilions, such as Japan, Italy and the United Arab Emirates, reached biblical proportions.
"Couples got married in the queue, had babies while they were waiting and have now put those children into primary school," popular Italian comic Crozza sang in a skit last week on his television show. (tinyurl.com/p2rsu7z)
Milan resident Alessandra Nicita, who works in IT, visited the Expo eight times over the past six months, while her boyfriend has gone back 18 times.
“I was amazed to see thousands of people queuing up for everything. For the pavilions, for coffee, for anything. It’s not like Italians. I think a myth grew up around the place and lots of people just wanted to experience it,” she said.
Not everyone was happy about the waiting. “I thought I was going to die,” said Rome pensioner Alice Moccia, who queued for five hours in the August heat to see the Italian exhibit.
She was also unimpressed by all the hi-tech displays. “Everything was done via video screens. I wanted to touch the produce, actually feel a coffee bean, but I couldn’t. It would have been easier to watch Discovery Channel at home.”
The Expo was built on scrubland outside Italy’s financial capital and it is still not clear what will happen to the site once the last visitor goes home.
Previous Expos, such as Hanover 2000 and Seville 1992, left disappointing legacies, with many of their pavilions left to decay for lack of funds and a vision.
The public authority which owns the Milan Expo area has suggested creating a university campus, but has asked the cash-strapped government to pay for the transformation. As of yet, Renzi has not committed to any afterlife for Expo.
Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Toby Chopra