HONG KONG, China — Normally one of Asia’s most popular destinations, Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and easy place to visit continues to suffer as the territory is gripped by anti-government protests.
In the latest escalation, officials on August 12 took the extraordinary measure of closing Hong Kong International Airport, where crowds of demonstrators had gathered. All departing flights were canceled.
The airport, one of the world’s busiest, is the main international transport link in and out of the territory and the closure is likely to seriously impact its accessibility to tourism. Ferries to nearby Macau and trains to mainland China are still running, but obviously, lack the capacity and scope of the aviation hub.
Authorities have requested all passengers to leave the airport immediately ahead of what demonstrators believe may be an attempt by police to clear what, up until now, was seen as a relatively peaceful arena of protest.
“For the safety of airlines, tourists and staffs, we call for people at the airport to quickly leave the airport for our staff to continue the operation,” said Frank Chan, Hong Kong’s transportation chief. “We can only return to operation after considering tourists’ and staff’s safety.”
Exiting the airport, which is located on Lantau Island, about 35 kilometers from downtown, is usually a simple business — but those arriving after the closure announcement were facing long, chaotic waits for transport options.
The Airport Express train is usually the quickest option, with services departing every 10 minutes for what should be a 32-minute journey. Taxis and shuttle buses cover the road trip in about 40 minutes, but congestion during the mass exodus could create delays and lead to expensive fares.
Long waiting times
Video footage of the airport’s bus terminus showed huge crowds waiting for a ride. Protesters helping organize the clear out were holding up signs warning of “long waiting times.”
The airport is expected to re-open on Tuesday, August 13, but passengers traveling by air in or out of the territory were being advised to check their flight status and not head to the airport until given the all-clear.
Many of those arriving at the airport on Monday, faced confusion, with some even asking CNN journalists for help. The Australian Consulate in Hong Kong sent a team of officials to the airport to help with their nationals traveling through the airport.
HKIA’s closure is the latest development in nearly three months of increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong about a now-shelved extradition to China bill. That controversy has sparked a deepening political crisis which has, at times, brought parts of the city to a standstill.
Dramatic images of tear gas filling residential areas, as pro-democracy protesters engage in street battles with police, have been beamed around the world.
Authorities have insisted the territory is still safe and open for tourism during the demonstrations, but that hasn’t stopped some visitors being swept up in the unrest.
Tara Chanter, a 31-old-teacher from the UK, was visiting Hong Kong with her young child and husband during the protests on July 28.
“My feeling is that as long as we avoided the protest area we would be safe,” she said. “However, in light of the changes since we’ve been there I’m maybe more concerned about coming back, given the fact that protests seem to have escalated.”
Chanter arrived in Hong Kong during the airport protest and said while it was “a little intimidating after a long-haul flight” she were aware of what was happening as the airline had kept her well informed.
“I felt like they were protests, so they weren’t acts of violence,” she said. “I wasn’t concerned about random attacks because we weren’t protesting.”
Impact on tourism
But there are signs the protests are having an impact on tourism.
Between June 16 and July 13, during which time there were several huge demonstrations, flight bookings to Hong Kong from Asia fell by 5.4% on the same period last year, according to analysis firm ForwardKeys.
Before the protests kicked off, the city had been enjoying a 6.6% rise in flight bookings in the first six months of 2019, compared to the same period of 2018.
Meanwhile, tourists have been posting pictures on social media of themselves in front of the countless Lennon Walls that have sprung up around the city. The colorful displays of Post-it notes with inspirational messages for the protest movement are named after the 1980s Prague mural of the same title, which was covered in Beatles-inspired lyrics of dissent against the Communist government.
While the violence has mostly been localized to pre-arranged demonstration sites, several countries, including the UK, Canada, Japan, South Korea and the UAE, have issued demonstration alerts to citizens.
That’s got some tourists worried. A quick search of social media platforms such as Twitter throws up numerous examples of people asking whether it is safe to visit the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
Is Hong Kong open for tourists?
The Hong Kong Tourism Commission has said the city is still open to travelers. And key major attractions such as the Peak Tram, the Ladies’ Market and the Star Ferry, which takes passengers across the Victoria Harbor to Kowloon, so far have been unaffected.
The “vast majority of people taking part in processions do so in a peaceful and orderly manner,” Jeanne Tam, from the Tourism Commission, said in a statement. “Processions only affect certain parts of the city for a defined period of time … (and) are publicized well in advance,” Tam added.
At the beginning of the protest movement, at least, most marches took place on Sundays on pre-planned routes. While those marches took over some of the biggest highways on Hong Kong Island, they were easy to avoid and largely peaceful.
However, as the weeks have worn on things have gotten more complicated. In July, masked protesters stormed Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building, and late at night a few hundred, people mainly in their teens and twenties wearing protective gear, broke in and occupied it for several hours.
Some protests have targeted tourist areas, such as Tsim Tsa Tsui which is popular with travelers from mainland China, to get out their message. And on Sunday, protesters who marched through the city illegally targeted Causeway Bay, another retail hot spot, “to let the world know what’s happening in Hong Kong,” according to a protester who did not want to be named.
Are the protests dangerous?
In recent weeks, the protests have become less predictable and more violent.
Police have refused to authorize some marches, which has led to violent street clashes between protesters and police.
The violence has at times spilled over into the city’s trendy Sai Ying Pun and Sheung Wan districts, two heavily residential areas near the city center with restaurants, bars and boutique hotels popular with tourists, and a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal to Macao.
Other violent protests have happened in less touristy areas. Yuen Long, on the city’s border with mainland China, in the north of the territory, for example, has seen mob violence and police have stormed the subway station there to disperse crowds. In total, 69 people were hospitalized over the two incidents in Yuen Long.
As the situation gets more heated, some countries have issued travel warnings advising tourists to ask their hotel or travel agency for information on where protests will be and to follow the local news.
The United Arab Emirates Consulate in Hong Kong has advised its citizens to avoid places near government and private buildings during weekends and not to wear black or white — the colors of the protest movement and mob attackers, respectively.
Has travel around the city been disrupted?
Generally, the city is running as normal. But during protests that can change dramatically — as demonstrated by the airport closure.
Roads have at times been closed, bus lanes blocked and tram lanes brought to a standstill when protests have taken over some of the city’s main streets. Subway stations have also been temporarily shut and train lines suspended in areas where protests have been concentrated.
The ferry service between Sheung Wan — where the protests took place — and Macao was temporarily suspended at one point.
Carol Chan, spokesperson for Hong Kong’s famous Star Ferry, said its cross-harbor services had not been disrupted. In fact, the company had enhanced its services “to cater for the increased flow of passengers,” as protesters use the service to get to Hong Kong island.
Are tourists still coming?
Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, has previously said that the city’s mass demonstrations had hurt local merchants. Many retail and food and beverage businesses have reported a drop in customers, he added.
“For foreign companies and tourists, Hong Kong seems to have become turbulent and insecure, affecting their desire to travel, do business and invest in Hong Kong,” Chan said.
The Langham Hospitality Group, a luxury hotel operator in the city, said in a statement that “certain segments at our Hong Kong hotels have seen a slowdown.”
“We advise our guests that Hong Kong is still safe to visit and conduct business,” said Serene Tan, the group’s director of public relations. “The recent protests … in the longer term will not pose a threat to Hong Kong’s economy and global standing as one of the top travel destinations of the world.
“The city has experienced similar protests before and has always proven to be resilient.”
Luxury hotel Island Shangri-La, located in the city’s Central district, said it had seen some “cancellations from our overseas leisure, group and corporate guests.”
“We have also seen a decline in the number of local patrons coming to our restaurants and outlets,” Carol Kong, spokesperson for the hotel said.