What Travelers Need to Know About the Hong Kong Protests

Here’s why the politically motivated protests are happening and how they could affect your trip.

What Travelers Need to Know About the Hong Kong Protests

Organizers claim 2 million people have been involved in the demonstrations that began in June.

Photo by John YE / Shutterstock.com

Since June, protesters have taken to Hong Kong’s streets, blocking roads and demonstrating against Hong Kong’s top official, chief executive Carrie Lam, who attempted to pass an extradition bill that many say would have weakened the protections around those who live in the semi-autonomous territory. Lam agreed to suspend the bill in early September and it was officially withdrawn in October, but protesters continue to rally for democratic freedoms, including universal suffrage and inquiries into police brutality.

Although the protests are primarily peacefully and planned (and usually announced online), they have grown more spontaneous. There have also been instances of violence over the past few months—including a skirmish on October 4 in response to the government’s ban on masks, during which protesters set fires in MTR subway stations and an undercover police officer shot a 14-year-old in the leg. In an August 11 clash, the police descended into the MTR subway to fire tear gas and shoot pepper balls at protesters. Then on Halloween, police deployed tear gas against protesters who defied the ban against wearing masks.

In the wake of continued political unrest, tourism numbers have fallen dramatically. In August, tourist arrivals had dropped 40 percent compared with a year ago, financial secretary Paul Chan told the Wall Street Journal. They’re expected to fall nearly 50 percent in October compared to last year, the BBC reported. And the Cathay Pacific airline group, based in Hong Kong, put out a statement on October 18 confirming that the number of passengers it carried in September 2019 had dropped 7.1 percent from September 2018. Tourism isn’t the only hit to Hong Kong’s economy, of course, and in the past three months, its GDP has shrunk so much that recently announced government data shows that it is now technically in a recession.

Here’s what travelers need to know about visiting Hong Kong right now.

Hong Kong police use water cannons on protesters on September 15, 2019.

Hong Kong police use water cannons on protesters on September 15, 2019.

Photo by Isaac Yeung / Shutterstock.com

How have the protests affected life and travel in Hong Kong? Getting there: The airport is functioning after being essentially shuttered by protesters for two days in August, when demonstrators filled the hub’s halls after what they called “unnecessary” police violence, reports CNN. As a result, nearly 200 flights in and out of the airport were canceled. The airport, which reopened the following day, is one of the world’s busiest, and saw nearly 75 million passengers in 2018. While the airport is open now without interruption, the Airport Express (a subway line that is the quickest way between the airport and the city) is sometimes affected by protests, going express and skipping Kowloon and only running between the airport and the final stop at Hong Kong Station. Hong Kong airport, MTR, and Cathay Pacific continue to post notices about this and other travel interruptions; on the night of October 31, for example, Cathay Pacific’s site published an alert that Airport Express trains would not stop at Kowloon, Tsing Yi, or AsiaWorld-Expo stations from 9 p.m. onward.

Getting around: The Hong Kong subway system, called the MTR (of which the Airport Express is a part), has an informative website that is updated regularly with alerts, station closings, and station-rerouting info in English. In some extreme situations, the entire system may be shut down, as it was on October 5 after widespread protests against the government’s newly announced ban on face masks escalated into violence on both sides. Take out cash before or as soon as you arrive in Hong Kong, so that you can use taxis if the MTR has closures or reroutings or if you want to get out of a neighborhood quickly. Taxis can be hailed on the street, and they don’t accept credit cards. The official taxi industry has its own app, eTaxi, and Uber exists, too.

On the ground: Protests have occurred across the city, with the most violence in Tsim Sha Tsui, Sham Shui Po, Wan Chai, and Kwai Chung. Demonstrations have also been in Admiralty, the Central Government Complex of Hong Kong, and SAR Tamar Park—much of Hong Kong’s downtown core. Some tour operators and travel companies are continuing to host travelers, while others are steering them away. “Although the large majority of the protests in Hong Kong have been peaceful and easily avoidable by travelers, they can be unpredictable,” says Emma Clifton, who lives in Hong Kong and works as strategy director for WildChina, an experiential travel company based in Beijing that’s been guiding visitors through the country for nearly 20 years. “The main sightseeing areas of the city have been largely unaffected by the protests. Transport disruptions caused by protests can impact travelers though, especially over the weekends.” She says that the company still has clients choosing to visit Hong Kong now, but when possible the team is recommending travelers postpone nonessential travel.

What should I know if I’m traveling to Hong Kong?

As of September 6, 2019, the U.S. State Department upped its travel advisory for those visiting Hong Kong to a Level 2, which suggests travelers “exercise increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest.” (Note that Level 3 is “reconsider travel,” and Hong Kong has not been given that advisory.)

But the State Department suggests travelers “keep a low profile,” “avoid the areas of the demonstrations,” “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests,” and “monitor local media for updates.”

Travelers should follow the situation via social media and news. Some of the best local outlets:

For additional assistance, contact the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong & Macau by telephone using the following numbers: 852-2841-2211 or 852-2523-9011 (after hours). It can also be reached by email, at acshk@state.gov.

Protesters fill Hong Kong International Airport on August 10, 2019.

Protesters fill Hong Kong International Airport on August 10, 2019.

Photo by Wong Tsz Kiu Katy / Shutterstock.com

Are any attractions or hotels affected? Some 100 art institutions also went on strike on June 12, closing their doors in solidarity with the protesters. They’ve since reopened, but if you’re traveling to Hong Kong while more demonstrations are planned, be sure to check the website of any attraction you’d like to visit.

On October 27, protests flared up in the tourist area of Tsim Sha Tsui, the location of many shops and the luxury Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. Demonstrators threw petrol bombs, and police fired water cannons and released tear gas.

On August 12, the Peninsula Hong Kong released a statement, saying:

“For the past few weeks, protests have been occurring in Hong Kong, causing major disruption to public transportation and road access across the territory, including the Tsim Sha Tsui area. . . .

“The Peninsula Hong Kong management is taking maximum security precautions to protect our guests and staff, and we will do our best to ensure minimal disruption to guests inside our hotel and those arriving at Hong Kong airport. We strongly advise you to check with the Concierge on the latest situation before venturing out and to exercise caution at all times.

“The Peninsula Hotels takes the safety of its guests and staff extremely seriously. As such, we will continue to closely monitor the situation, and will advise guests of any change in the situation or security-related measures that should prove necessary

Other popular hotels in Hong Kong, including the St. Regis, Four Seasons, and the Island Shangri-La, have not been affected.

What caused the protests?

The extradition bill, which was finally formally withdrawn on October 23, was the root cause. Since February, Lam had pushed for the passage of the bill, which she said was necessary to a murder case: In 2018, Poon Hiu-wing and her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai, went on a trip to Taiwan. Only Chan returned; he later told police he had strangled Poon. Yet under Hong Kong law, Chan can only face charges related to where the death occurred, in Taiwan. Because Hong Kong does not share an extradition agreement with Taiwan, Chan remains in Hong Kong. Because of this, Lam has been an advocate for entering an extradition agreement with Taiwan as well as China.

Police fire tear gas in the Tai Po district on August 3, 2019.

Police fire tear gas in the Tai Po district on August 3, 2019.

Photo by gary yim / Shutterstock.com

What do protesters say? Protesters said this extradition agreement would have exposed them to China’s legal system. A former British colony, Hong Kong today is a special administrative region of China that has control over its politics, laws, and economy and operates under the “one country, two systems” principle. Many critics of the extradition bill, like Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker, said it was nothing more than an opportunity for Lam to push a broader agenda of incorporating Hong Kong into China (China selected Lam to lead the territory).

“I think the whole thing is a political maneuver more than anything else,” said Mo back in March, according to the New York Times. “Ever since the handover, it’s been stipulated in the law that we do not hand over fugitives to mainland China. Now they are taking advantage of this particular Taiwan case and pretend it is for compassion and humanity.”

Mo has said the protests will continue until Lam steps down. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, though, as Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Lam on November 4 and praised her leadership. The position she holds, chief executive of Hong Kong, is basically appointed by the Chinese government.

The Associated Press contributed reporting. This article originally appeared online on June 18, 2019; it was updated on August 9, August 13, September 30, and November 5, 2019, to include current information.

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Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
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