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Watch fair opens amid virus fears

Hong Kong is one of the areas affected by the ban

(Keystone)

Fears of the spread of a deadly virus have overshadowed the opening of a major watch and jewellery fair in Basel and Zurich.

Many stands run by exhibitors from Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Vietnam remained closed when the fair opened its doors to the public on Thursday morning.

Hong Kong officials had threatened to pull out of the fair in protest at a Swiss decision to bar certain Asian countries from doing business there.

But on Thursday the Federal Health Office confirmed the ban would remain in place while fears continued over the spread of the lung infection known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars).

Head of the office, Thomas Zeltner, said the ban would only be lifted if the organisers came up with another solution that guaranteed the safety of visitors to the fair.

But Fred Lam, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (TDC), complained that the decision was unfair. He told swissinfo that exhibitors from the territory had spent around HK$50 million (SFr8.8 million) on the fair.

"This fair is very important for Hong Kong's watch and jewellery industry," Lam said. "If we cannot participate in the Zurich fair, it means we are going to lose probably 20 to 30 per cent of our business for this year."

He said the Hong Kong government would make representations to Bern following the decree, which affects up to 3,000 exhibitors and their employees.

Government speaks

On Wednesday the Swiss government said it had acted after being approached by the cantons of Basel and Zurich with their concerns.

The deputy head of infectious diseases at the federal health office, Hans Matter, told swissinfo that he agreed the decision had been taken at the very last minute but that it was necessary.

"We have to understand that the situation evolved during the last days," Matter said, referring to a recent increase in suspected Sars cases in Switzerland.

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.

Strange Swiss welcome

"It's a very strange Swiss way of saying welcome," Lam told swissinfo.

"It also gives our exhibitors no scope to make alternative arrangements to staff their booths. I personally spoke to the Swiss consul general in Hong Kong before I boarded the plane and he told me nothing of this," Lam added.

The TDC said it had all along taken the initiative to cooperate fully with the fair organisers and the Swiss government in recognition of their concerns about Sars and the need for all parties to minimise risk.

"Our exhibitors have taken all reasonable precautions recommended by our own government and the World Health Organisation. They have fully submitted to measures imposed on travellers by health authorities and airlines," Lam said.

"We are here... They [the authorities] allow us to walk freely in the fair grounds and the exhibition. The only thing we are not allowed to do, it seems, is business at the fair," Lam told swissinfo.

"I find this decision difficult to comprehend."

Logistics problems

Commenting on the government decision, the Swiss Exhibition chief executive officer, René Kamm, said a number of task forces had been set up to deal with logistical problems that had arisen.

"I have to make it clear that we as the Swiss organisers have to comply fully with this directive from the highest authority of this country," he said.

"I personally feel very sorry about the implications of this directive for everybody concerned," he added.

One of the long-standing exhibitors at the fair, Ronnie Bernheim from the Mondaine Watch Company of Zurich - makers of the Swiss Railway Watch - told swissinfo that he disagreed with the government decision.

"I understand the government's duty to protect the population and take measures when needed," he commented.

"But when measures are taken, they must be appropriate and reasonable. It shouldn't be segregation."

"What it has done is perceived segregation," he said, adding that the unintentional effect was that Asian competitors were being locked out of doing business at the fair.

swissinfo, Robert Brookes in Basel

Sars summary

At least 75 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.
Meanwhile, the number of suspected Sars cases in Switzerland has risen to nine.
The latest case, a Singapore Airlines pilot, was admitted to hospital in Zurich on Tuesday, showing symptoms of the illness.

end of infobox

Watch fair summary

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

However 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.

end of infobox

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