09 Aug Hong Kong Travel During the Protests: A Guide
(UPDATED! October 20, 2019)
What is going on now in Hong Kong? Many guests and friends have contacted us wanting to know how the current protests are affecting the city, and what it is like to travel here now. We’ve put together some frank answers for you. If you want the short version of our take on things here it is: Hong Kong is safe for tourists. We have not had to cancel any of our Little Adventures programs. The biggest hassle is that you may run into transport delays, since the government has been closing MTR (subway) stations early, often with little warning. Hopefully they will stop this soon! In the meantime, a traveler in Hong Kong who wants to enjoy everything the city has to offer will have few or no problems here as long as you are flexible.
NOTE: If you book with us, you’ll have access to us personally during your stay via email and Whatsapp. We will answer your questions about planning your schedule around demonstrations, what areas to avoid, and advise you about alternate transport suggestions if the MTR is not running.
1. How safe is Hong Kong?
Even now, Hong Kong is still one of the safest cities in the world. We have an extremely low crime rate. Although the media focus is on the sensational clashes between police and protesters, keep in mind that Hong Kong is not a war zone. Guns that shoot real bullets are rare in Hong Kong (they’re illegal for civilians to own). No one has been killed during 4 months of protests that have included peaceful mass demonstrations of up to 2 million people. No travelers in Hong Kong have been hurt. For context: compare this to popular travel destinations like Thailand, where tourists have been murdered and bombs have exploded in tourist locations in central Bangkok. Even in the middle of protests, Hong Kong is still far more secure than many Asian neighbors.
However, it’s also true that this is a very special time in Hong Kong, and anyone who comes now needs to understand what they are parachuting into. We agree 100% with the state departments of the US, the UK, Canada and Australia, who recommend that travelers stay alert and keep away from areas where there are protests happening.
This doesn’t mean you have to be afraid, nor does it mean you need to run from ALL protest demonstrations, if you are interested in experiencing them. (More tips on how to safely attend a Hong Kong protest are below).
It means you should exercise good judgement and common sense. If you want to completely avoid the protests, that’s easy to do, since the majority of the demonstrations are scheduled and announced well in advance. The clashes you see on the news are mostly after-hours action that happens between police and hardcore protesters after the majority of demonstrators have gone home. It’s not likely that you’ll accidentally get caught in the crossfire, unless you are looking for it. The rare hapless traveler who accidentally wanders into a “hot” protest zone is typically quickly sent packing off in a safe direction by concerned local Hong Kongers or the police.
UPDATE: Masks. The Hong Kong government recently implemented by fiat a rule that bans wearing masks of any kind in the protests. The police have been rather unevenly enforcing this, and we have seen many regular citizens wearing surgical masks (to prevent disease transmission) in the streets of downtown. While this is perfectly legal according to the new regulation (masks are only banned during demos), there have been cases where the police have stopped people randomly on the street for mask-wearing. We recommend that you don’t wear masks at all in Hong Kong, just to be on the safe side.
2. Is the airport open?
Yes. Air traffic is running as usual at Hong Kong International Airport. There have been no disruptions since August. (It was closed on the evening of August 12, and for a half day on August 13th, resulting in cancellations and delays). It’s doubtful he airport will be disrupted again by protests. Last week the Hong Kong Airport Authority got a legal injunction from the courts that bans protest activities from most airport areas.
They’ve also added new security measures to keep non-travelers out of the airport. (IMPORTANT NOTE: Travelers flying out of Hong Kong airport now have to present proof of travel (boarding pass) and ID before they will be allowed to enter the departures area. Allow a bit of extra time for this queue).
3. What’s life like in Hong Kong on a day to day basis?
We’re in the middle of one of the most important and intense periods in Hong Kong’s 177 year history. At the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was promised 50 years of “relative autonomy” in a UN-registered formal treaty between the UK and China’s government. The agreement has been chipped away at by China, bit by bit for years. This is the main reason why the protests have continued for more than 70 days. Many Hong Kongers are saying “Enough already.” They want the promise of democracy kept, and their way of life secured. They want what residents of any big city do: better housing, better quality of life, a fair and open legal system and a democratically elected local government that’s accountable to the people.
These are serious issues, and they are front and center for all Hong Kong people, whether they agree with the protesters or the pro-China faction or fall somewhere in between the two points of view.
Yet daily life in Hong Kong is far from all protest all the time. Our convention center is hosting big professional trade conferences. We’re going out to eat (nothing can keep Hong Kongers away from their food!) Chefs are opening new restaurants. The Peak Tram just re-opened after a couple months renovation.
Some travelers might not even notice that anything is going on, save for an occasional traffic jam or service interruption on the MTR. This is especially true if you are staying in the Central area of Hong Kong island, or if you are going to well-known tourist places. Even though our Little Adventures walks take people off the usual circuit to real neighborhoods, not tourist sights, we have not had to cancel any of our programs due to the protests. Our walking tours mainly take place during the daytime, and most of the police actions reported in the international news have happened at night. This is a good place to mention that many of the videos you have been seeing on the news are taking place in parts of Hong Kong that are somewhat distant residential districts–areas you would be unlikely to ever visit. And the official protest marches (the ones that have police permits and are legal) are huge, friendly gatherings of Hong Kong people from all generations and walks of life.
4. So should I travel to Hong Kong now, or wait for later?
Our answer to that is : It depends.
Visiting a city during a turning point moment like this one in Hong Kong can be an extraordinary experience. You’ll have a rare opportunity to get deeper into the conversation of a place. Hong Kong people are eager to talk about what’s going on, so you’ll get a quality of local interaction you might not get during normal times.
And because Hong Kong is still an extremely safe city, a visit here now represents a chance to experience history in the making without risking much more than, say, getting stuck in traffic or having to change plans to avoid a crowd of protesters.
In many ways this is the best time to travel to Hong Kong in years. The protests have put a temporary halt to the huge influx of tourists from mainland China. (More than 25 million come every year!) On a practical level what that means is the streets are less crowded, queues for attractions like the Peak Tram are super-short, and you can often nab a table at a top restaurant at last minute, not to mention a seat at a popular mom-pop establishment. The whole atmosphere of Hong Kong feels more local, less touristy.
Traveling anywhere at any time involves a level of risk. (even the USA is on some travel advisory sites!) Before you go on a trip to Hong Kong or anywhere else, we recommend that you think through what you are comfortable with. If you are the kind of traveler who hates delays and unpredictability, you probably won’t enjoy traveling to Hong Kong now. We would recommend holding off your trip for a month or two. But if you are a flexible, spirited traveler who thrives on spontaneity and is not fazed by a traffic jam or train delay, then you should come. Now.
5. What can I do to maximize my travel experience in Hong Kong while protests are happening?
Make sure you have a good local connection to keep you informed and on top of the latest situation. This could be a Hong Kong friend, your company’s staff in Hong Kong, or a company like Little Adventures in Hong Kong. Having a trusted local contact is the best way to minimize risk and maximize your experience anywhere you travel in the world.
If you want to experience a Hong Kong protest on your own, be sure to do your research first!
Hong Kong’s authorized protests are legal to join, take place mainly in the daytime or early evening, and provide an excellent opportunity to learn about the issues facing Hong Kong by speaking directly to Hong Kong people. Number one consideration before observing a protest or attending a gathering: Find out if the gathering has police approval (or if it is sponsored by the Civil Human Rights Front, a group whose marches are reliably peaceful). Take note of the scheduled hours of the gathering, and leave at or before the official ending time. The protest schedules are widely available (your hotel concierge should have them but you can also consult with your Little Adventures in Hong Kong host).
If you want to do a low-key “drop in” we would recommend going to a smaller rally rather than a big march. These are often held in a venue like Chater Garden, near to the Mandarin Oriental hotel and the old colonial building that houses our supreme court, the Court of Final Appeal. These gatherings are usually sponsored by professional groups or unions or have a demographic theme–there have been rallies of civil servants, elderly people, doctors and medical professionals. There are gatherings of mothers, of families with children, and even one for concerned pet owners. There are also gatherings of groups that oppose the protests, and you may be interested in attending one of these, to get the full picture of Hong Kong opinion.
During this time we are making our staff available to our guests via email or Whatsapp throughout their stay, so if you have any questions about what is safe or not while you are here, you can get an answer in real time directly from a trusted local.
For those who are interested in learning more about Hong Kong, its history, and the background of the protests, we are happy to customize your tour accordingly. We can give you the background and context to make sure that you come away from your Hong Kong experience with a complete understanding of our city at this extraordinary moment. Contact us.
6. Where can I find background on the Hong Kong protests to read before I visit the city?
If you need a basic “explainer” on the protest movement this article in The New York Times is the best place to start for an overview of the events leading up to the current situation. The NYT coverage of Hong Kong has been quite good –the Times has a large staff based in the city, and they know it well. The UK-based Financial Times, like the New York Times, has a regional headquarters in Hong Kong and lots of reporters on the ground –for a business angle as well as the British perspective on Hong Kong, they are the go-to. For a more local take on the day to day of the protests (and updates on protest schedules), we recommend the online newspaper Hong Kong Free Press, an independent local English language outlet. For a deeper dive into the roots of the protests, we recommend the essays of Kong Tsung-gan, a Hong Kong civil rights activist who has been chronicling the city’s pro-democracy movement since the Occupy Hong Kong movement in 2014. Another byline to look for is Isabella Steger, a Hong Kong journalist who has been writing about the business and culture of the protests for for Quartz, and who posts superb live coverage of protest events on Twitter as @stegersaurus
Closer to home, our Little Adventures in Hong Kong’s Senior Host Yvonne Teh writes regularly and eloquently about her experiences and thoughts during this time of protest at her blog, Webs of Significance