Iraq war, SARS, overshadow Basel 2003’s opening

Basel, Switzerland—Worries about the war in Iraq and a potential global epidemic overshadowed the April 3 opening of the reorganized and redefined Basel World Watch and Jewelry Show.

Basel Show officials have said—even up to the day before the show opened—that they anticipated this would be “an exceptional year” for the fair, because of the many changes and improvements. Instead, the effects of converging world events could make this one of the most disappointing in the fair’s history. On top of worries about war and terrorism, a last-minute order by the Swiss Health Control Office has barred almost 400 Southeast Asian firms—more than 2,500 people—from exhibiting at the show, due to concerns over an illness known as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

“The show is taking place against a backdrop that couldn’t be more adverse,” said Rene Kamm, CEO of Swiss Exhibitionn Ltd., which owns and operates the Basel fair. “The worldwide economy is in flux. Consumers are reappraising their lifestyles. The war in Iraq started two weeks before our opening, and now in Asia a severe form of pneumonia [SARS] appeared in recent weeks.”

He continued, “We must be realistic in our expectations for this year’s show. We expect a reduction in visitor numbers from overseas this year and, as a consequence, a lower business volume for our exhibitors as compared to excellent previous years.”

Nevertheless, those who came found much to enjoy, including a plethora of prestigious first-time and returning exhibitors, more user-friendly services for buyers, an added show location in Zurich, a forum analyzing the luxury market, and even a new look for the show halls.

Concerns about Europe’s reaction to the war in Iraq—including many anti-American protests, even a recent sit-down in front of a McDonald’s in downtown Basel—as well as worries about SARS from Southeast Asia apparently kept many foreign buyers home this year. Several exhibitors told JCK on opening day that many of their retail customers—both large and small firms—have canceled their appointments, some at the last minute. On observation, the halls of the Basel fair seemed less crowded for an opening day than usual, and a number of Basel taxi cab drivers said that their business was down.