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Is it safe to visit Hong Kong as protests escalate?


Protesters stand off against riot police at Wong Tai Sin district on August 05, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Hong Kong’s protests have become more unpredictable, grown increasingly violent and spread beyond government districts in recent days, about two months after they kicked off. On Monday, demonstrators filled Hong Kong International Airport, prompting authorities to cancel all departing flights. More protests followed Tuesday, with the airport suspending all check-ins in the afternoon.

Still, experts say the city is generally safe for travelers — as long as they steer clear of action and stay alert.

“It is still safe to travel there,” says Matt Bradley, regional security director of International SOS. “It’s just there’s more disruption than there was before.”

The travel impact from Monday’s protests was unavoidable: All departing flights to destinations including Europe, Africa, Australia, the United States and other countries in Asia were canceled into early Tuesday morning, local time. Many arriving flights were delayed or scrapped, the airport’s website showed.

Though flights had started to leave and arrive on schedule earlier Tuesday, by late afternoon, disruption had returned.

“All passengers are advised to leave the terminal buildings as soon as possible,” a notice on the airport’s site said Tuesday afternoon, repeating the message that went out Monday. “Affected passengers please contact their respective airlines for flight arrangement.”

The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong echoed the airport’s warning Tuesday in a demonstration alert. Protesters started leaving the airport Monday night before returning Tuesday afternoon.

The U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory for Hong Kong to a Level 2 designation on August 7, urging citizens to “exercise increased caution" because of civil unrest. It warned that some demonstrations have turned confrontational and ended up in neighborhoods where they were not authorized.

“Since June 2019, several large scale and smaller political demonstrations have taken place in various areas of Hong Kong. Most have been peaceful, but some have turned confrontational or resulted in violent clashes,” the advisory says. “The protests and confrontations have spilled over into neighborhoods other than those where the police have permitted marches or rallies. These demonstrations, which can take place with little or no notice, are likely to continue.”

The advisory says those who travel to the city should monitor local media for updates, avoid demonstrations, be careful if they find themselves near large gatherings, and keep a low profile.

A strike on August 5 caused chaos in the city of 7.4 million, shutting down transportation systems, forcing flight cancellations and shuttering stores. Demonstrators clashed both with police and with counter-protesters, with dozens arrested. The protests originally started over a bill, now tabled, that would allow mainland China to extradite suspected criminals. But activists have expanded their list of grievances and demands, and observers expect the demonstrations to continue.

Bradley said his company expects more protest activity moving forward. “Our assessment is that the protests are going to continue until they get the result that they’re looking for,” he says.


A protester blocks the MTR underground train from closing as protesters blocked the train doors at Fortress Hill station in Hong Kong on August 5 in their efforts to disrupt the morning rush hour commute. Pro-democracy protesters caused chaos on Hong Kong's subway system as they kicked off an attempted city-wide strike to ramp up pressure on the financial hub's embattled pro-Beijing leaders after weeks of protests. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

Tourists have generally not been caught up in the activity, though at least one South Korean national who was demonstrating has been arrested, according to Brendan O’Reilly, intelligence analyst for the Asia region for global risk management firm WorldAware.

He said many demonstrations are announced in advance by mainstream activist groups, but smaller and more violent protests have also cropped up, especially around police stations. Those can be especially risky to travelers, Bradley says, because they may not immediately be recognizable as a protest and visitors might not know to get away.

“Avoid all protests whenever you see them; try to learn about them in advance so you can avoid even going there,” Bradley says. “If you go there and they’re around where you’re at, you’ve just got to get out of there.”

Kate Springer, an American journalist based in Hong Kong, said in an email that while major tourist spots such as Victoria Peak or the Big Buddha statue have been “relatively unscathed,” protests have taken place in other tourist areas including Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok.

“The tricky thing for travelers who might not know the city well is that the protesters have a ‘whack-a-mole’ strategy where they protest in one area, then move quickly to another area," she wrote. “So it’s hard to anticipate their next move. I could see travelers getting accidentally caught up in it or stuck in traffic due to the activity.”


The view from Victoria peak in Hong Kong. For the most part, the highly tourist peak has been untouched by protests. (Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg)

Bradley urged travelers to be flexible in their plans and monitor local sources of news for the best information.

O’Reilly said travelers can take one other precaution: avoiding black T-shirts, which have been worn by those protesting the extradition bill, or white T-shirts, which have been adopted by counter-protesters.

“In addition to avoiding protest locations, visitors might want to reassess their clothing choices to avoid getting caught up in the clashes,” he said in an email.

Freelance journalist and photographer Laurel Chor, a Hong Kong native who has been covering the protests, said in an email she still considers the area safe for visitors. Other than last week’s strike, she said the protests have been easy to avoid — though she acknowledged the situation could change.


Demonstrators sit on the floor during a protest at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, on Monday, Aug. 5. (Eduardo Leal/Bloomberg)

“The biggest risk is inhaling tear gas if you happen to be nearby,” she wrote. She added that protesters “are actively trying to court the international community and are actually extra friendly and helpful to tourists.”

Visitor numbers from the Hong Kong Tourism Board show that the number of tourists increased 14 percent year-over-year through June, reaching almost 35 million for the first half of the year. Tourist activities are continuing as usual, according to the board.

“Hotel and tourism operators are also monitoring the current situation, and are prepared to provide necessary assistance to minimize impacts on travelers in the event that unforeseen circumstances arise,” Bill Flora, the tourism board’s U.S. director, said in an email. "Hong Kong continues to be a welcoming city for travelers.”

Read more:

Will China crush Hong Kong protests? For Beijing, there are no good options.

Understanding the State Department’s updated travel advisories

China’s army just released a video showing soldiers practicing shooting protesters

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