Expo '98: Officials see gains in loss

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LISBON, Portugal -- A report issued by Portugal's finance ministry details the shortcomings of Expo '98 held in Lisbon, including a loss of $530 million; 5 million visitors fewer than the 15 million predicted by organizers, and the spending of $18 million on cruise ship rentals that had occupancy rates of 30% during the four-month fair.

An Expo spokesman said the report is "old news," based on information from an audit that Expo '98 had commissioned foreign companies to do following the 1998 event.

He acknowledged that in 1993, when Expo was approved, organizers had first told the government that the fair wouldn't cost taxpayers anything and then revised the assessment to the tune of $350 million in 1997.

"We had a cost overrun of 26%, and we don't think it's so bad to have had the government contribute 26% to a $2 billion project that raised the image of Lisbon permanently," he said.

He said the Expo '98 park, with the largest aquarium in Europe and the Atlantic Arena for international sports events, attracts 1 million visitors a month.

Frederico Costa, director of the Portuguese National Tourist Office in New York, noted that the infrastructure improvements made for Expo, including the renovations of its ancient quarters and the building of road networks and the Vasco de Gama bridge, significantly raised the tourism profile of the city.

"We weren't even on the tourism map for foreigners as a major European capital before Expo, but those days are over," Costa said.

He pointed out that 12.5 million visitors came to the country in 1998, an increase of 1.5 million from 1997. The boom continued, he added, with 13 million arrivals in 1999.

"Expo '98 was the first major, modern fair that Portugal organized, and the financial problems that are being discussed are no surprise. Now we have experience, so I think similar problems will be avoided," said Costa.

The finance ministry report comes at a time when Porto, Portugal, is preparing to don the mantle of cultural capital next year, a European Union designation, with a slate of activities, and the entire country will be the backdrop for the European soccer championships in 2004.

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