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Hong Kong pulls out of watch fair in protest over virus fears

Asian stands at the watch fair in Zurich are virtually empty

(Keystone)

Hong Kong has pulled out of a major watch and jewellery fair in Switzerland in protest at a ban on conducting business there over contagion fears of the deadly Sars virus.

The move comes after the Federal Health Office on Thursday confirmed that a ban on certain Asian countries would remain in place.

Fred Lam, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC) said the move was totally unacceptable and that the Swiss authorities had left his delegation with no alternative.

The Hong Kong delegation - the second biggest after the Swiss hosts with more than 300 exhibitors and around 2,500 staff - has threatened to sue for compensation.

On Tuesday, the Swiss cabinet announced that salespeople from Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Vietnam would not be permitted to attend the fair.

The ban, which was not extended to visitors from those countries, is intended to prevent the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which has so far killed at least 78 people worldwide and infected some 2,200 others.

Not welcome

Lam said preparations for the return to Hong Kong were underway and that it would probably take place in the next day or two.

"We are clearly not welcome here although Swiss businesspeople will continue to be welcome in Hong Kong," he said.

He said the withdrawal would cost Hong Kong exhibitors at least HK$50 million (SFr8.8 million) in airfares, hotels and marketing costs but that the true business loss would be far higher.

Hong Kong companies normally clinch 20-30 per cent of their annual turnover at the Swiss fair. Jewellery manufacturers alone risk losses of $400 million worth of exports.

Physical contact

The Swiss defended their decree, issued on the eve of the fair, which bans anyone who has been in Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Vietnam since March 1 from working at the exhibition.

"Given the physical contact involved in putting jewellery or watches on potential customers, health officials fear that even one or two exhibition staff infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or Sars could pass this on to hundreds of visitors.

"Exhibition organisers failed to offer an alternative which provided the same level of protection and therefore there are no grounds to relax the decree," said Thomas Zeltner, head of the health department.

It is not yet clear what steps the other countries will take.

Free of infection

The Hong Kong delegation was grouped in Zurich with 26 other national exhibitions.

Visitors to Zurich on Thursday faced hundreds of display stands containing unpacked boxes and disconsolate staff. Although personnel were forbidden to sell products, they were still allowed to enter the exhibition centre.

Many experts have questioned apparent inconsistencies in the Swiss government's response.

The exhibitors are free to walk around the fair but not do business. They had also agreed to undergo examination by Swiss medical authorities to establish that they were infection free.

Meanwhile, there is no ban on tourists from the affected countries who are planning to visit the fair.

Some 6,000 visitors and exhibitors from southeast Asia are expected to attend the weeklong event.

The government also says it is planning no special measures for a 60-strong Chinese delegation which is paying an official six-day visit to Switzerland, starting on Friday.

Death toll

Switzerland has reported six suspected cases of Sars. The latest suspected case, announced on Wednesday, is a pilot with Singapore Airlines who is under observation in a Zurich hospital with flu-like symptoms.

Hong Kong and World Health Organisation scientists say the strain probably originated from animals.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

At least 78 people worldwide have died from Sars, most of them in China.
The Federal Health Office has advised Swiss nationals against travelling to Hong Kong and Guandong province in China.
The decision is in line with World Health Organization recommendations.
Switzerland has reported six suspected cases of Sars.
The latest case, a Singapore Airlines pilot, was admitted to hospital in Zurich on Tuesday, showing symptoms of the illness.

end of infobox

In brief

The Swiss watch and jewellery fair opened in Basel and Zurich on Thursday.

Many stands run by Asian exhibitors remained closed.

The Swiss government has banned people from some Asian countries from working at the event amid fears over the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Up to 3,000 exhibitors and their employees are affected by the decree.

The Swiss watch industry is the world's biggest and increased its exports by 15 per cent last year to SFr10.64 billion.

end of infobox

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