For anyone visiting a city or country seized by protests, this is what you do. You stay informed. You remain alert. You cast a sideways glance at happenstance. You can still explore with abandon, just not on the protest route.
“Planning your trip around protests can be more stressful than necessary, but if you can move around and avoid them, it’s not as dangerous,” said Matthew Bradley, regional security director for the Americas at International SOS. “You just need to be super flexible and willing to go with the flow.”
In terms of civil unrest, the world map has become a game of whack-a-mole, with many of the moles popping up in concert. This year, citizens have demonstrated in the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Haiti, Russia, Zimbabwe, the Czech Republic, India, Egypt, Tunisia and Indonesia, among three dozen or so countries. Protests have led to the resignations of the prime ministers of Lebanon, Malta and Iraq. They have forced Paris officials to close the Eiffel Tower. They have caused airlines to cancel flights to Barcelona, the Spanish city that wanted to curb overtourism, but not this way.
“This is definitely the age of mass protests,” said Samuel Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There is not a region or place in the world that isn’t experiencing them.”
Brannen said the trend started about a decade ago, with the Arab Spring, and “has ticked up in intensity globally.” Protesters’ activities are rarely isolated and self-contained; they spill into everyday life, affecting residents and travelers alike. Strikes shut down transit systems (see: Paris and Buenos Aires), and marches consume neighborhoods and popular thoroughfares (Santiago’s Providencia neighborhood, Barcelona’s Via Laietana, Hong Kong’s Kowloon). Officials barricade streets, including those in front of hotels and tourist attractions, and businesses alter their hours, forcing visitors to rejigger their itineraries. During standoffs between protesters and law enforcement, visitors have to lie low until the tension subsides. But once calm returns, they can pick up the sightseeing where they left off.
To be sure, these disruptions are not pleasant, especially when you crave a soothing vacation. But (safely) witnessing a defining moment in a country’s history can provide unparalleled insights into a culture and a deeper understanding of its people and their passions.
“Culturally, it’s not insensitive to visit,” said Bradley. “You can experience their pursuit of democracy.”
Do your research
As protests proliferate around the world, more travelers will have to face this tough question: Should you visit a destination experiencing unrest? (These days, you can ask yourself that same question without leaving the Beltway.)
For the answer, you need to dig a little. Start with the travel advisories issued by government agencies, such as the U.S. State Department. For multiple perspectives, David Clapworthy, an Asia sales manager with Audley Travel, reads the warnings compiled by several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. He steers his customers away from high-risk places, such as Bolivia, a Level 4 in the U.S. grading system. “Do not travel to Bolivia due to civil unrest,” the agency states without ambiguity. The countries that fall in the middle — neither safe nor dangerous — are more challenging. Chile, Zimbabwe, France and Ecuador are all Level 2 countries. For these destinations, the agency urges travelers to “exercise increased caution.” Not the most helpful advice if you don’t know why you are raising your cautionary bar.
So fill in the blanks. Familiarize yourself with the issues that ignited the protests as well as the participants’ demands and the government’s response. (The latter two can provide a clue to the lasting power of the civil unrest.) Common grievances include inequality (Chile), higher taxes (France, Ecuador), suppression of freedoms (Hong Kong), corruption (Malta, Russia), election fraud (Bolivia) and unjust treatment of minority groups (India). Understanding the nature of the protests is equally important: Are they localized or widespread, sporadic or consistent? In most cases, the protesters will direct their ire at the government and law enforcement, not tourists. But sometimes visitors get scooped up in the net.
Bradley urges travelers to hold off on travel if the uprisings restrict movement and cause a shortage of resources, such as food and fuel. (Two examples: Haiti and Bolivia.) Also take heed if either side of the struggle resorts to violence. Thomas Carothers, an international democracy expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said countries with politically closed systems and a low tolerance for opposing views, such as Russia and Egypt, might more quickly employ harsh tactics to silence protesters. He said innocent bystanders are more at risk when a brutal response is premeditated rather than a spontaneous response to a volatile situation. In addition, protests with a clear strategy and an organized base usually adhere to a peaceful course of action. Movements without a central core can devolve into chaos, with groups splintering off and adopting more extreme behaviors.
And finally, find a local source — a relative, an old college roommate, a Facebook friend — who lives in the destination or recently visited it and can provide a first-person narrative. When I was researching my trip to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (its official name), I reached out to Leo and Carole, friends whose mid-November trip coincided with one of the most violent periods since the protests started six months ago. Leo’s appraisal: “We didn’t feel threatened in any way. We just walked around and minded our own business.” I also emailed my hotel and asked about the situation. A half-hour later, I received a reassuring reply from the assistant reservation supervisor at the Luxe Manor in Kowloon: “We believe Hong Kong is safe to travel at this stage. Our team will be very happy to assist you and to provide you with the most updated information during your guest stay.”
He was right. At check-in, the front desk attendant gave me intel about an upcoming protest on Hong Kong Island. Then she offered me a glass of sugar-cane juice to keep me healthy and hydrated.
Fewer tourists, fewer lines
“It’s the worst time to visit,” said Michael Tsang, founder of Hong Kong Free Tours, “and the best time to visit.”
The best and the worst occupy two sides of the same coin. The protests have caused a sharp drop in tourism: The Hong Kong Tourism Board reported a 43 percent decrease in arrivals in October compared with the same time last year. Airlines have reduced passenger capacity through early next year; in September, United indefinitely suspended service from Chicago. Hotels are scrambling for guests, with even the most luxurious properties offering discounts and perks. At Lan Kwai Fong Hotel at Kau U Fong, a boutique hotel with a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant, I paid less than $100 a night and received a free bottle of red wine, a fruit plate and a 2 p.m. checkout. The rate at the Luxe Manor was not much more. I felt like my hotel stays were more of a charitable donation than a business transaction.
I was last in Hong Kong three years ago, and my memory is of crowds, lines and escalating frustration. At Victoria Peak, the ride to the mountaintop took hours because of long lines to buy a ticket, board the tram and reach the Sky Terrace 428. At the top, throngs of people body-blocked the harbor view. Selfie sticks chopped up the sunset-glazed sky. I gazed at the skyline through the screen of a stranger’s smartphone. On this visit, I walked right up to the ticket window and straight onto the tram. No obstacles impeded my vista. Security still yelled at me. Not for standing on a wall this time, but for eating a banana.
I didn’t make too many plans, in the event that I had to cancel because of the protests, but I did sign up for two walking tours. One was at Tai Kwun Center for Heritage and Arts, a year-old cultural center that occupies the former British-era police station and jail. I was the only one on the tour. Participation doubled on the Kowloon excursion with Hong Kong Free Tours. Two of us showed up.
Before the unrest, Michael said 20 to 40 people would sign up for a tour, but his numbers for last month are down by 60 percent. On several occasions, he has had to cancel the nighttime Delicacy Tour. He said visitors are not comfortable with the idea of roaming the streets after dark, even when the motivational carrot dangling in their faces is dim sum and barbecue.
Hong Kong law requires organizers to obtain a permit to protest, so I knew exactly where and when the events would occur during my visit. Security experts recommend that tourists steer clear of protest sites and take flight if they notice a large group of people amassing. But curiosity is a powerful drug.
On my first night, I headed down to the water’s edge to watch the Symphony of Lights, a laser and sound show featuring more than 40 illuminated buildings on both sides of Victoria Harbor. I plotted a route that would skirt the Observation Wheel and cut through an anti-tear-gas rally. Hundreds of attendees sat on the ground and listened to speakers address the police’s use of tear gas and explain the effects of the toxins. The crowd was quiet and respectful. After the light spectacle, I circled back to the rally. A girl in a school uniform knelt on the sidewalk and spray-painted “Ideas are bulletproof” in English and Cantonese, a quote from the movie “V for Vendetta.” On another patch of sidewalk, she scrawled “12.8.” I knew that date well.
Observing the unrest
Hong Kong Free Tours started offering its Protest Tour in October, soon after the government banned protesters from wearing masks. The last tour, in November, did not go well. The two participants, plus Michael, who was guiding, were exposed to tear gas. Michael suspended the excursion before tiptoeing back onto the streets a few weeks ago. The Dec. 8 march organized by Civil Human Rights Front marked his official return.
Seven of us from around the world — Sweden, China, the Netherlands, Israel, Singapore and Wisconsin — met at the starting point in Victoria Park on Causeway Bay. With our predominantly Western faces and light-colored clothes, we stood out among the black-outfitted Hongkongers pouring out of the metro station. Many of them gripped umbrellas, but not for protection from inclement weather. Michael introduced himself and half-jokingly told us he didn’t want to know our names or personal details. He explained that we were not protesting; we were on a tour in a protest, which is why we could wear masks. (The law has a few exceptions and loopholes.) Even so, I declined one of the medical masks a woman was handing out.
Michael played back the events that sparked the June protests: In February 2018, a Hong Kong teenager killed his girlfriend during a vacation in Taiwan. A year later, the Hong Kong government proposed a law that would allow Taiwan and China the right to extradite its citizens. Hongkongers, suspicious of China’s judicial system, revolted. Legislators withdrew the initiative, but the protesters didn’t disband. They added four more demands and forged onward.
“Five demands, not one less,” Michael said, echoing a common slogan.
Before setting off, he reminded us of protest etiquette: no photos of law enforcement or protesters’ faces. (“Where’s Waldo?”-like crowd shots were acceptable.) Also, if someone raises their umbrella, don’t poke your head under it and investigate; the person might be attending to a private matter, such as scribbling a message on a wall.
We walked at a steady pace, with no cars or package-laden pedestrians blocking the route that officials had closed to traffic. Individuals with bullhorns or commanding voices led call-and-response chants. We hit a logjam by the Sogo department store. The crowd parted for a woman pushing a baby stroller. Umbrellas shot open like inverted primroses as several people noticed shifty activity on a balcony above. Someone in the front broke out in song. All of the voices joined in “Glory to Hong Kong,” the unofficial anthem of the movement.
The protest ended at Chater Garden in the Central district, but Michael dismissed our group before the finishing line. The event, which drew more than 800,000 supporters, had been peaceful, but violence could still erupt.
“Use this experience today to tell people what Hong Kong is really like,” he said in his parting words. “Hopefully, one day this will end.”
His “one day” seemed like a distant dream. The following week, police and protesters skirmished. Law officers released tear gas, and protesters hurled bricks, blocked streets and busted traffic lights. Michael already has a tentative date (Jan. 1) for the next Protest Tour.
After the tour, we grabbed a drink at Landmark, a nearby luxury mall. We maneuvered around a clutch of protesters who were wearing gas masks and idling by a gantlet of riot police. Fresh graffiti covered a bus stop. A thought bubble above a cartoon panda read, “Strike on 12th Dec!!!!”
Inside the shopping center, young Hongkongers drank overpriced coffee, their eyes locked on their gadgets. They resembled typical youth frittering away a Sunday, if not for the umbrellas they were carrying on a cloudless night.
If you go
Where to stay
The Luxe Manor
39 Kimberley Rd.
The hotel sits smack in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, within walking distance of Temple Street Night Market, the new K11 shopping and cultural center, and Victoria Harbor. The stylish decor feels like a collaboration between Elton John’s costume designer and Salvador Dalí’s muse. The hotel, which has a gym and free use of an iPhone with unlimited data, is offering several deals, such as 35 percent off plus breakfast for two on a three-night stay. Rates from $90, or less with the winter deal (valid through February).
Lan Kwai Fong Hotel at Kau U Fong
3 Kau U Fong
The boutique hotel in the Central district offers tasteful accommodations with a contemporary Chinese flair, plus a Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant and the BreeZe Lounge, an indoor/outdoor terrace with complimentary wine, coffee, tea and snacks. Choose from city, mountain and harbor views. Rates from $111. Sign up for the company’s loyalty program and save an additional 12 percent.
What to do
33 Garden Rd.
Ride the 131-year-old funicular railway from the Lower Terminus to Victoria Peak, a mountaintop on Hong Kong Island. Pay extra for the Sky Terrace 428, a 360-degree observation deck with stellar views of the skyline and islands. The attraction also has shops, restaurants, hiking trails and, weirdly, Madame Tussauds. The combo tram and terrace pass costs about $13.
Hong Kong Free Tours
The tour company, which promotes an “uncensored” view of Hong Kong and China, leads four walking tours a week. For example, guests on the Kowloon Free Tour learn about the housing crisis and squalid living conditions. The owner also leads a Protest Tour and releases the details last minute, so check the website often. (The next one could be held on Jan. 1.) No fee, but tipping is encouraged. The company suggests 100 Hong Kong dollars, or about $13.