Shunned firms back in force for Basel fair
Victims of a Sars 'ban', HK watch and jewellery makers are wooed to return
Watch and jewellery makers in Hong Kong are set to return in force to the world's biggest industry trade show next month in Switzerland, although they still feel hurt after being effectively banned last year because of the Sars outbreak.
At least 333 exhibitors from Hong Kong have signed up to attend this year's Baselworld watch and luxury goods show, making it one of the largest contingents.
The Hong Kong companies are returning in part because the Swiss agreed to demands to make up for last year's fiasco, including a new centrally located exhibition hall for Hong Kong exhibitors.
Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, who fought for the rights of Hong Kong exhibitors last year, has been invited to the show's opening on April 15 by the Trade Development Council (TDC), which is organising the Hong Kong delegation.
Mr Tang has not yet accepted but leaders of industry groups such as the Hong Kong Jewellers' & Goldsmiths Association, the Diamond Federation of Hong Kong and the Jewellery & Jade Manufacturers' Association will attend.
However, there is still some anxiety in the watch and jewellery industry.
'I cannot deny Basel is a very important show for watch and jewellery people, but I wish the show organisers do not do anything against Hong Kong' this year, said Chow Bing-kuen, general manager of the Hong Kong Jewellery Manufacturers' Association.
During the Sars crisis, organisers of the show ordered medical checks on April 1 - two days before the show began - for all 317 Hong Kong exhibitors before they could enter the exhibition hall in Zurich. The exhibitors, believing the exam would have taken several days to complete - and curtail their time at the fair - unanimously withdrew.
As a result of the pullout, visitor numbers plunged 22 per cent from the year before to 52,000, the biggest decline ever.
Before the ban, Hong Kong exhibitors had been expected to account for 16 per cent of the total, tying with Switzerland and second only to Italy. This year the organisers expect 2,100 exhibitors and 80,000 visitors.
The wounds from last year are still raw in the minds of Mr Chow and others.
'They still allowed us to visit the show, they allowed us to stay in Switzerland, but not the exhibition. You can buy, you can visit the show, you can sightsee, but you could not exhibit. It was ridiculous,' he recalls.
Businessmen such as Henry Wong Wing-ping, marketing manger of Good View Jewellery Manufactory, are still annoyed at losing money on the trip.
'We just stayed two nights, then we went back. We lost all the travel fees, lost all the hotel costs,' said Mr Wong, whose company makes gold rings, necklaces and bracelets.
'It's not fair,' he added. Still, Mr Wong plans to attend this year's Basel fair, saying it has good potential for boosting business.
For their part, Swiss officials are keen to forget last year's events. The country's consul-general, Francois Barras, said Hong Kong companies would be welcomed not only as exhibitors but as partners.
In addition to agreeing to provide a new hall for Hong Kong and other foreign exhibitors, the organisers also agreed to keep exhibitor fees stable for the next six years. In return, the TDC dropped its claims against the show organisers for compensation for losses.