People walk past the official sign marking Dubai Expo 2020 near the sustainability pavilion in Dubai on January 16, 2021, hoping to bolster soft power and get the economy going again will now open its doors in October 2021 to open.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

Dubai, United Arab Emirates – Rogue virus variants, global vaccine rollouts and international travel restrictions will all be closely monitored as Expo 2020 Dubai approaches.

The personal mega-event, possibly the largest ever hosted in the Arab world, cost billions and took more than a decade to plan. It is now slated to resume on October 1, a year after the pandemic was postponed.

“Here in the United Arab Emirates we are optimistic but realistic and practical,” Reem Al Hashimy, director general of the United Arab Emirates and Expo 2020 in Dubai, told CNBC on Tuesday.

“We are confident that we will see a better and stronger overall picture over the next five months,” said Al Hashimy. “We’ll still have eddies here and there that are still difficult, but by and large we’re hoping for a stronger recovery.”

More cases of COVID-19 have been reported globally in the past two weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic, even as vaccinations increase worldwide. India is grappling with a deadly third wave, and rogue variants of the virus – like strains first spotted in South Africa and the UK – could still pose significant risk.

An advisory group to the World Health Organization (WHO) also said it found “evidence gaps” in how the vaccine against Sinopharm, widely used in the United Arab Emirates, protects against “worrying variants” as well as the duration of its protection from the need for booster doses.

The United Arab Emirates are at the top of global vaccination rankings, and virus cases have stabilized at around 2,000 registered new infections per day in recent months. A decision on the WHO approval for Sinopharm’s emergency is due in the coming days.

The organizers are still aiming to attract 25 million visitors to the Expo site in the hopes that residents and curious travelers from the pandemic period will fill the mostly empty parking lots and cave-like buildings that cover the expansive Expo site on the edge of the Dubai desert.

“Over the 182 days, we remain confident that we can pull that number,” said Al Hashimy, adding that regular tourists, at least for the time being, don’t need a vaccination to attend.

“We try to do this responsibly, so we have masks and social distancing, and everyone is tested before they come in,” she added.

Travel ban clock

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, convened the last international meeting of participants for the Dubai Expo 2020 on Tuesday. “We are ready to welcome 190 countries to the world’s greatest event,” he said in a tweet.

But five months later, destination countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are still prohibiting or restricting travel to the Emirates. Al Hashimy said the situation was “fluid” and the UAE were working to resolve worrying issues over the coming weeks and months.

“We have regular conversations with them to understand how we can change the current trajectory,” said Al Hashimy when asked about the travel restrictions that could affect attendance.

“I can’t wait to lift the travel restrictions, but we have to be sure that we can lift them without endangering the health of all citizens,” EU Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Andrea Mattero Fontana told CNBC on Tuesday.

While much of the EU also remains in lockdown, a plan to ease restrictions on summer travelers who have been fully vaccinated with European Union-approved shots is currently under consideration. “If we continue to roll out this vaccine distribution program in the coming months, we’ll be in a much better position five months from now,” added Fontana.

Other countries with a total travel ban, including Australia, pointed to a virtual alternative.

“When people cannot travel, they can take part in virtual events and it will also attract quite a number of Australians who do not live in Australia and can still come to Dubai,” said Justin McGowan, Australian Commissioner General for Dubai Expo 2020. said CNBC.

“This is the harsh reality of the COVID pandemic,” said Al Hashimy. “We were hoping it would end or fail, but it will actually be here for a while.”