Skift Take

Canceling a major event like Mobile World Congress will undoubtedly have a huge impact on the tourism industry. The question is whether the organizations that decided to cancel the event will provide any assistance to affected businesses.

The cancellation of Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress will no doubt have a major effect on the telecom industry, as the year’s major event to hobnob and ink deals won’t take place. But it will also have an outsize effect on another industry: Barcelona tourism, and perhaps European tourism at large.

The event, which was meant to take place Feb. 24–27 was canceled Wednesday due to global concerns over Covid-19, or the coronavirus. The GSMA, which organizes the event, made the call after a slew of major tech companies including Amazon, Nokia, and LG Electronics pulled out over concerns. In a statement, it said the climate of global concern made it “impossible for the GSMA to hold the event” despite increased health, safety, and screening measures it had put forth.

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The congress has been held in Barcelona since 2006, and in that time has come to serve as a key part of Barcelona’s visitor economy. The event attracted more than 100,000 visitors from 200 countries in 2019. It also resulted in an estimated economic impact of 473 million euros ($513 million) and 13,900 temporary jobs. Not to mention the cab drivers, restaurateurs, and tourism businesses which see a swell of patrons.

Events like MWC also serve as an opportunity for Barcelona to showcase itself as a the ideal place for such mega-events, offering nice weather, spacious facilities, and plenty of culture and dining to keep conference-goers happy after-hours. Barcelona’s tourism board did not respond to a request from Skift about how much of its visitor economy is comprised by meetings and events.

A press conference took place Thursday morning, held by conference organizers GSMA, Barcelona city hall, and trade fair institution Fira Barcelona. Barcelona Mayor Ada Colau indicated during her remarks that the event will return next year.

“Obviously, we’re sorry about the economic impact the cancellation will have, but also about the volume of work, so much work by so many people, so much enthusiasm that goes into it, and clearly there were so many people looking forward to coming and exchanging experiences and knowledge, so we’re sorry that’s not going to happen this year,” Mayor Colau said. “Having expressed our regret, and our solidarity with the victims who have died in China, what’s really important is what you’re seeing here today. We’re working shoulder to shoulder, completely coordinated, with maximum loyalty and absolute transparency towards the public, so that next year’s edition of the MWC Barcelona is the best ever and the first of many more to come.”

Skift asked all the agencies named above, as well as the tourism boards of both Barcelona and Catalonia, if any support was being provided to tourism businesses who may experience an economic fallout from the cancellation. The mayor’s office said a meeting would take place on Friday morning regrading the matter, with more information to follow. The other agencies did not respond in time for publication.

The Barcelona hotel trade group Gremi d’Hotels said it respects the decision, but also emphasized in a statement that there is no public health danger at present in Barcelona or Spain.

“It is time to quantify exactly the economic effects on the hotel sector. From this moment, the hotel sector will work to make a careful assessment of the implications that this decision will generate and to manage in a timely manner the cancellations of room reservations as stipulated in the contract clauses,” the statement read. “The hotel sector will continue to be committed to Barcelona in order to provide the best service and the best conditions, and to guarantee that our city continues to be a reference to host major events in the future.”

On the decision itself to cancel, Bloomberg reported that not all Spanish business leaders thought it was necessary. Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Nadia Calvino reportedly said in a radio interview on Thursday that Spanish officials did not see it was necessary to cancel the event. There have been less than 50 cases of the virus so far in Europe and no deaths. The European Union is meeting today for emergency talks on strengthening its containment strategy.

The European Tourism Association said the cancellation could be worrying not just for Barcelona, but for European tourism as a whole.

“There maybe sound business reasons as to why the MWC has been canceled: It is possible the potential absence of Chinese delegates called the event into question. But it is obviously a worrying development,” CEO Tom Jenkins said. “One of the great threats of the current crisis is not from the virus but from fear. Fear is far more contagious than any virus and has the potential to be genuinely damaging. What needs to happen is for a very clear signal to be made. Europe is safe. Visitors are safe and normality underpins prosperity.”

At the World Health Organization’s daily press conference on Monday, when asked about meetings and events happening all over the world, Michael Ryan, WHO executive director for health emergency programmes, said that while risk management procedures are essential, “you can’t shut down the world either and normal activity must go on … we need to see is reasonable, well-managed meetings and gatherings in which the risks are managed appropriately.”

UPDATED: This post was updated twice, once with more information from the office of the mayor of Barcelona, and again with a statement from Gremi d’Hotels that was issued after publication.


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Tags: barcelona, coronavirus, Mobile World Congress, tourism

Photo credit: The Fira Gran Via in Barcelona. Jason Cross / Flickr

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