Swiss Ban of Asian Exhibitors Challenged

Legal complaints challenging the Swiss government’s ban of Southeast Asian exhibitors at the 2003 BaselWorld trade fair were filed May 14 in Bern, the Swiss capital, by the show’s owner/operator and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). The appeals to the Swiss Department of Home Affairs call for a formal governmental review and rescinding of the April 1 order, issued to prevent the possible spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The appeals are necessary before lawsuits can be filed in Swiss courts for damages and compensation, say spokespeople for the show and the HKTDC. The government is expected to provide the results of its investigation within six months.

The order of the Swiss Office of Public Health (BAG) was “unlawful” and “unreasonable,” alleges the appeal of MCH Swiss Exhibition Ltd., Switzerland’s largest operator of trade fairs and owner of the BaselWorld fair. The HKTDC appeal calls the order “discriminatory” and “unjustified” and says it may have “an adverse impact on Hong Kong’s future participation in other exhibitions in Switzerland.” Both groups claim the ban has caused significant financial losses and could have “drastic” effects on the 2004 BaselWorld fair.

BAG’s order affected exhibitors whose staff members were in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, or Vietnam after March 1. It was issued just before the opening of BaselWorld (held April 3-10), when most vendors and their staffs were already in Switzerland. Until then, BAG had repeatedly assured MCH and the HKTDC that no special measures would be taken.

The order affected some 3,000 people and 394 of the show’s 2,163 exhibitors—383 out of 786 vendors in national pavilions in the show’s new Zurich center, and 11 of the 1,377 firms in Basel. However, BAG’s order didn’t bar BaselWorld visitors coming from the affected countries, didn’t prevent those 3,000 staff members from going to the fair as visitors (which some did), and didn’t prevent ousted vendors from doing business at local restaurants and hotels or elsewhere in Switzerland (which some did).

MCH doesn’t dispute the importance of protecting public health. However, it says, BAG’s order was based on “inadequate fact-finding” —in fact, Swiss officials neither visited the fair nor gave MCH a hearing before unexpectedly issuing the order. In addition, MCH claims the measures imposed were “an over-exaggerated reaction” and did nothing whatsoever to protect the population. MCH’s appeal cites a leading Swiss medical authority on hygiene who says BAG’s directive was “medically incomprehensible and arbitrary” and even “dangerous,” because it compelled some Asian vendors to do business outside the show, which could have spread SARS “unchecked.”

MCH has retained a Swiss law firm to handle and coordinate damages claims against it from companies and service providers affected by the order. It hasn’t yet issued an estimate of the order’s financial impact on the fair but does cite the “negative effects on Switzerland’s trade relations” with the affected countries and the “damage done to Switzerland’s image as a trade fair venue.”

For Hong Kong firms, the ban has caused “significant damage and financial loss,” says the HKTDC appeal. Approximately 30% to 40% of the annual business of Hong Kong watch and jewelry firms results from the Basel fair. Estimated minimum losses are HK$2 billion (US$300 million).

The HKTDC has retained a leading international law firm to act on its behalf as well as a top-ranked Swiss law firm to prosecute its appeal with the Swiss government.

This year’s ouster of the Asian exhibitors and their staffs will affect the next BaselWorld Fair in 2004, say spokesmen for the show and for the HKTDC. The ban seriously damaged BaselWorld’s new “one show, two locations” plan: Almost half the vendors at the Zurich location were Asian, most (about 320) from Hong Kong. “The future inclusion of the Zurich venue [is] in serious doubt,” says MCH’s statement.

The HKTDC says “it is still uncertain whether Hong Kong exhibitors will join the [Basel] World Jewelry & Watch Fair next year.” The HKTDC is currently polling firms in the watch, clock, and jewelry industries in Hong Kong for their opinions, noting that “several options are being considered.”