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Zurich pays the price for Sars debacle

A fear of Sars led Switzerland to ban some 350 companies at a recent fair

(Keystone)

Sars may now be under control in the Far East, but arguments about the economic fallout of the lethal respiratory virus are still rumbling in Switzerland.

The controversial ban on Asian exhibitors at this year’s Baselworld watch and jewellery fair is already having financial repercussions in Zurich.

On Wednesday Baselworld organisers decided that they would no longer include Zurich in future editions, a move that looks set to cost Switzerland’s biggest city at least SFr100 million ($73 million) a year in lost turnover.

It’s estimated that the fair’s removal will also entail a loss of up to 30,000 overnight stays at Zurich hotels.

“The Baselworld decision is a very tough one as far as we’re concerned,” Zurich tourist board’s marketing manager Maurus Lauber told swissinfo. “It hurts us a lot because we were sure that the city would be able to keep the fair.

“It’s also a great shame for us that the whole affair has damaged Zurich’s image among the Asian market – particularly when what happened was clearly beyond our control.”

Selling

Although Zurich co-hosted this year’s fair with regular host city Basel, it was in Zurich that most of the exhibitors from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Singapore were due to be selling their wares.

They were prevented from doing so by Switzerland’s federal health office, which issued its ban in April just two days before the start of the fair. Some 350 companies were affected, representing one in six of the total number.

Many had already arrived in Switzerland by the time the ban was published.

“Our decision [to move the fair from Zurich] was based on surveys conducted among this year’s exhibitors,” Baselworld show director Monica Guarnaccia told swissinfo.

“We still think that things could have worked out in Zurich, but it’s hypothetical now. The exhibitors clearly want to regroup with Basel as the event’s one location.

“We have been working hard, both during this year’s fair and afterwards, to maintain confidence in the event, and I am sure that those affected by the ban now realise that we were only doing what we had to do under the circumstances.”

Lawsuits

Guarnaccia said that Baselworld’s parent company, Swiss Exhibition, could not yet say how much money it has lost as a result of the Zurich ban – not least because a number of lawsuits are still pending.

Baselworld is itself being sued by Zurich’s cantonal health office which has accused the fair’s organisers of breaking regulations on the control of epidemics.

In return Basel is suing the federal health office on the grounds that its ban was “too late and inappropriate” to the scale of the problem.

Losses

The federal office is also facing an action brought by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council, which estimates its own losses at SFr8.43 million.

In an unrelated move, Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Economic Affairs announced in May that it would provide compensation for Swiss firms which were directly affected by the Sars outbreak.

While the legal wrangles over this year’s Baselworld continue, preparations for next year’s edition are already underway. Exhibitors can begin to register for the event in August.

Only then will organisers know if their efforts to win back the trust of Asian companies have been successful.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

In brief

Baselworld is the world’s largest watch and jewellery fair, attracting around 2,200 exhibitors from 47 countries.

This year’s edition was overshadowed by the outbreak of Sars, which led Switzerland’s federal health office to ban some 350 companies from affected nations.

The 2003 event was the first to be co-hosted by Zurich, but Baselworld organisers have now decided to stage future editions solely in Basel.

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