April 2, 2003
Switzerland Bars Many Asian Exhibitors from Basel Due to SARS
Just one day before the Thursday opening of the Basel World watch and jewelry show, the Swiss Federal Department of Home Affairs has instructed exhibitors not to employ staff who have traveled from China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam since March 1, though it said visitors from these regions are welcome to attend the show. The reason is concern about the possible transmission of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the mysterious new disease that reportedly has sickened an estimated 1,800 people and led to the deaths of more than 60 around the world. The disease is reportedly most virulent in the four countries noted in the Swiss directive.
The action effectively bars 317 exhibitors from Hong Kong from opening their displays at Basel World's new Zurich hall on Thursday. The Hong Kong contingent is the largest exhibiting at the new venue. An additional 66 exhibitors from other parts of China and Singapore are affected also. Before the ban, organizers had expected 2,163 exhibitors: 1,377 in Basel and 786 in Zurich.
The Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which manages the Hong Kong pavilion in Zurich, was shocked and angered by the news, says Frederick Lam, deputy secretary of the HKTDC. Lam says most exhibitors were already in Switzerland when they heard about the ban. The direct costs to exhibitors to exhibit in Basel World are over $6 million, which doesn't take into account business lost due to the ban. A representative of the jewelry sector in Hong Kong estimates a 20%-30% loss in the $20 billion in sales Hong Kong was anticipating this year.
Lam says the group has asked its legal advisers to appeal the decision to Swiss authorities. The exhibitors have volunteered to undergo Swiss medical exams to check that they are infection-free and to consider wearing surgical masks at their booths. Most are mystified as to why Asian exhibitors are banned while Asian visitors can walk freely around the show. "I came through the airport without being stopped, and I am allowed to walk the streets and go to restaurants and in hotels. The only thing I can't do is conduct business," says Lam.
Lam says the HKTDC has asked the government to respond to its concerns by noon Thursday, the opening day of Basel World, with an answer as to whether they can exhibit, before the group gives up and returns to Hong Kong. If the group is unable to exhibit, the HKTDC plans to seek compensation for its losses from the Swiss government and Basel World organizers.
- by Peggy Jo Donahue