The global economic downturn has taken the glitter off next month's Asia-Pacific forum of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in Hong Kong, but more SAR and Chinese firms will help make up for fewer Western companies. Senior government officials said the number of exhibitors at the biennial ITU Asia event in Hong Kong had decreased sharply, from 500 two years ago to 305 this year. They blamed the economic downturn for the smaller contingent of United States-based companies which had signed up for the event. Telecommunications-related organisations from 11 countries have booked space in the 16,000 square metre area at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre this year. About 100 companies from Hong Kong and the mainland, up from 70 two years ago, will take part in the exhibition and the forum sessions. They include data services operator China Netcom, wireless operator China Unicom and China Telecom, the country's dominant fixed-line network operator. The ITU regional event held in Hong Kong two years ago was acclaimed as the biggest telecoms event for the United Nations agency. It attracted more than 50,000 participants, 500 exhibitors, 679 VIP guests and 810 journalists in an exhibition space totalling almost 28,000 square metres. Anthony Wong Sik-kei, director-general of the Office of the Telecommunications Authority (Ofta), declined to estimate how many participants were expected at the five-day forum sessions, which start on December 2. Two years ago, 1,193 people attended the ITU Asia forum ses- sions. The ITU is responsible for the development of policies and global standards for the telecoms industry. Without the glamour and size of previous ITU events in Hong Kong, this year's event is being touted as a showcase for Hong Kong hospitality and creativity. 'We are partnering with local developers in design and production of gifts and souvenirs for the delegates and visitors to the event,' Mr Wong said. 'We want to show the Hong Kong brand name and our creative talents to the world.' The theme was Asia Leading Change. Forums will focus on investment and business, policy and regulatory issues, and new technologies and their applications. The event features a two-day Global Symposium for Regulators, starting on December 7. About 200 telecoms regulators from around the world are expected to attend. Key forum speakers include Chinese Minister of Information Industry Wu Jichuan and president and chief executive of NTT Communications Masanobu Suzuki. At a conference yesterday to promote the event, Mr Wong and Francis Ho Suen-wai, Permanent Secretary for Information Technology and Broadcasting, demonstrated a short-messaging service over a Bluetooth-enabled personal digital assistant developed by a Hong Kong company. Mr Wong said: 'I believe Hong Kong's development of 3G [third-generation] technology will be better than in other countries as we have a healthy licensing model. 'While regulators in other countries demand one-off payments of millions of dollars, local operators only pay annually, based on how much they make during the year.' Ofta will also host the first youth forum as part of the ITU event. Two university students, Vicky Yuen Sze-ling from the University of Hong Kong and Alan Chan Kwok-lun of the Chinese University, will participate with 110 students from 55 ITU member countries in the Asia-Pacific. This year's ITU Asia event will be the agency's 25th telecoms event since its World Telecom forum was held in Geneva in 1971. The regional ITU events, which include forums for the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Africa, were introduced in 1985 to address the more specific concerns of individual regions. Since then, they have grown in size and prestige and have become the most respected and authoritative in the world. Events before ITU Asia 2000 in Hong Kong took place in Singapore in 1985, 1989, 1993 and 1997.