SARS scare causes Swiss to bar Hong Kong exhibitors in Basel

Basel, Switzerland—The Swiss government has forced the Basel World Watch and Jewelry Show to shut down 383 Asian exhibitors—12% of its total 2,163 exhibitors—for health reasons, just a day before the revitalized and reorganized show was scheduled to open on Thursday.

The sudden order, issued at 5 p.m. on Tuesday and covering any exhibitors and staff from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Vietnam, is intended to minimize the risk of the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in Switzerland. In recent months, the pneumonia-like illness has come out of China through Hong Kong and has been diagnosed in a number countries around the world. Ironically, the order places no restrictions on visitors coming to the show from those countries.

The unexpected order most directly affects the 320 Hong Kong exhibitors, the largest national delegation in the Basel 2003 show, second only to the Swiss. It also weakens the Basel fair’s new “one show, two locations” concept, taking effect this year. Basel has moved its national pavilions (768 exhibitors) to its exhibition hall in Zurich, an hour’s drive from Basel, to provide more space for all its exhibitors. Hong Kong represents almost half of the exhibitors in Zurich, and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council has been a strong supporter of the fair’s new concept.

Several HKTDC Hong Kong association officials say being shut out of the fair so suddenly and “unreasonably” could eventually cost the Hong Kong watch and jewelry industries “billions of [Hong Kong] dollars” from the lost business in show orders, follow-up business, and new customers. The Basel show represents 30% to 40% of the Hong Kong watch and jewelry trades’ annual business, officials here say. At minimum, it will probably cost $400 million in lost jewelry business and “much more than that,” in lost watch business, industry officials said in a press conference held Wednesday.

The shutout has already cost the Hong Kong delegation at least $6 million: That’s the amount the group has spent on new booths for Zurich, a global marketing campaign, and travel and lodging expenses.

The order surprised and angered HKTDC officials and several Hong Kong associations taking part in the Basel show. They said they had worked closely for weeks with the show management and Swiss officials in recent weeks and promised to do “anything reasonable,” including taking medical tests at the show before it opened. On Tuesday, Frederick Lam, HKTDC executive director, contacted the Swiss Consul to Hong Kong before Lam flew to Basel to ask if there have been any changes in Swiss policy.

The Hong Kong delegation, through its lawyers and the Hong Kong government, has appealed to the Swiss government to reconsider its order. Lam told JCK that they had given the Swiss a deadline of noon Thursday (opening day of the show) for an answer. If they lose the appeal, he said, it’s “worthless” to be at the show and “we’ll pull out.” Whether the delegation will return in 2004 will be considered at a later date based on what the Swiss do now, he said.

If Hong Kong can’t exhibit in Basel 2003, Lam said, its associations probably will sue to seek repayment and compensation from the Basel 2003 show management and the Swiss government.