Cancelling the world's top mobile trade fair was the "only option" in the face of "force majeure" after coronavirus fears prompted dozens of companies to bolt the upcoming show, organisers said Thursday.
GSMA, the mobile trade association that organises the annual show, said late on Wednesday it was calling off the massive trade show that was to run in Barcelona between February 24-27, and slated to draw around 110,000 participants.
Mobile World Congress 2020 is one of the biggest events worldwide to be cancelled so far due to the virus.
"We looked at the data and yesterday we concluded that the vast majority of those who planned to attend were not going to be there," GSMA chief executive John Hoffman told a press conference in Barcelona.
"We looked at postponing the event, and again while it sounds good, it's impossible to predict when this situation is going to concluded. Therefore it could not be done."
Known as COVID-19, the epidemic has so far claimed 1,367 lives and infected nearly 60,000 people, the vast majority in China, which traditionally has a strong presence at MWC, a key date in the tech calendar for showcasing the latest gadgets and innovations.
But over the past week, the number of companies pulling out has spiralled, despite repeated assurances from the Spanish government and local authorities that the health risk was low in a country where only two off-shore coronavirus cases have been detected.
Just hours before the announcement, Vodafone, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom, Britain's BT and Rakuten of Japan pulled out, following in the footsteps of Intel, Facebook, Cisco and China's Vivo.
"It is impossible for us to hold this event at this juncture, it's truly a force majeure situation," said GSMA director-general Mats Granryd told reporters, saying it was still to early to count the cost of the cancellation.
Establishing whether or not this was a case of force majeure given that the Spanish authorities did not declare a health emergency will be key to deciding who will foot the estimated cancellation bill of some EUR 100 million ($110 million).
Such a bill would include a wide range of expenses, from the cost of cancelling the exhibition space to hotel reservations or reimbursing pre-paid entry tickets.
But Stephane Richard, chief executive of French telecoms giant Orange who also serves as GSMA president, defended the decision to cancel as "prudent", saying the organisers should not be left to carry the costs.
"Whether insurance covers this specific case is not clear," he told France's BFM Business television on Thursday.
"We cannot impose the cost of this cancellation on the GSMA, it concerns everyone."
This year, the vast event had been expected to pump 492 million euros ($536 million) into the local economy.
Although Spanish officials expressed understanding about the decision, they insisted there had been no compelling health grounds to do so.
"We regret the cancellation of Mobile World Congress, a decision which, according to experts and the available information, was not due to public health concerns in Spain," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez wrote on Twitter echoing earlier remarks by economy minister, Nadia Calvino.
"On the base of currently available information and the recommendations of public health experts, there is no public health issue that would prevent or put at risk an event like this in the country," she told COPE radio.
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