(BARCELONA, Spain) — Organizers of the world’s biggest mobile technology fair insisted Thursday that they canceled the annual Mobile World Congress due to health and safety concerns over the virus outbreak in China. But the Spanish government disagreed, hinting that there was another motive for the cancellation.
“This is indeed a very difficult situation and a very difficult decision that we have taken,” Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, told reporters in Barcelona on Thursday, a day after they canceled the event.
“Our priorities have been very clear and very simple: The first is health and safety of everyone involved in the show and the second priority is the reputation of the MWC and this event here in Barcelona.”
The decision to scrap the Feb. 24-27 event in Barcelona was taken after dozens of tech companies and wireless carriers dropped out over the COVID-19 virus, including major companies like Ericsson, Nokia, Sony, Amazon, Intel and LG. The companies cited concerns for the safety of staff and visitors.
But the Spanish government said in a statement Thursday it “believes it is not public health reasons in Spain that have motivated the cancellation.”
“There is no public health reason to not hold events of this type in our country,” the government added. It did not say what reasons it thought were behind the decision.
Spain has only two people infected with the virus, neither of whom is in Barcelona.
Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau, sitting alongside Granryd, also said, “neither in Barcelona, Catalonia or Spain does any health concern exist today. There is no local reason” to cancel.
Granryd said the decision had nothing to do with the trade differences between China and the U.S., as suggested by one reporter who noted that some of those that had canceled were at events in Amsterdam.
“Absolutely not. Everyone I have spoken to, this is a health and safety issue concern, concern of travel, concern of having to put business-critical resources in quarantine for 14 days so it has nothing to do with anything else than the force majeure situation of having coronavirus disease spreading on the planet,” Granryd said.
John Hoffman, chief executive of GSMA, emphasized they were dealing with “business-critical people,” including 8,000 CEOs. He said “there was grave concern on disrupting their business not only now but into the future.”
Granryd said GSMA could not discuss the costs of the cancellation, as it was “early days.”
“It’s not about money,” he added.
Hoffman said they had considered a scaled-down event but “all of our buyers have indicated they would not attend.”
He said they looked at the data Wednesday and concluded that the “vast majority of those who planned to attend were not going to be there.”
He said it was not possible to postpone the event because it was impossible to know when the situation would change.
Describing it as “a very dark day,” Hoffman said that the group nevertheless looked forward to hosting the event again in Barcelona in 2021. Barcelona city hall and the national government welcomed this.
The show was originally expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors from about 200 countries, including 5,000-6,000 from China.
The decision stands to be a major economic blow to the city, which has been hosting the event for 14 years.
Colau said “the local impact will be very substantial” and that authorities will consult with those sectors affected to see how they can reduce the financial pain.
The show normally represents a huge source of revenue for hotels, restaurants and taxi companies. Authorities have estimated the show would generate 473 million euros ($516 million) and more than 14,000 part-time jobs for the local economy.
Giles reported from Madrid.