Is Hong Kong safe for travel?

At the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront in Hong Kong. Because of the ongoing protests in the city, many hotels have slashed their room rates, while others have been forced to let go of employees. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong is at a crossroads as a new generation struggles to come to terms with the “One Country Two Systems” concept that has curiously underpinned this dynamic city since the handover to China in July 1997.

It has brought tear gas, tension, tears and confusion. The city has been flagged in a barrage of advisories – from the US and Canada to Finland, Ireland, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand.

Visitor cancellations are estimated at over 30% since June, crashing the retail industry and forcing hotels to cut staff. While all these advisories state low levels of risk, it is cold comfort to would-be peripatetics.

Through all this, the city has remained “safe” for travellers who employ the one tool that works best – common sense.

Are travellers physically at risk? The answer is a resounding “No”. Are their travel plans at risk? Simply put, it’s best to stay informed. The airport ground to a halt two days in early August and transport disruption is both a consequence and focus of the street marches and gatherings, peaceful or not.

This will continue, barring genuine outreach by the government – which has been muddled and muted – or a China clampdown.

Sporadic student protests have stayed mobile by centring on MTR (underground train) stations on weekends and even the airport. This is often problematic for visitors as targets change and the MTR often closes stations in demonstration zones.

Meanwhile, amid the gargantuan financial haemorrhage that is Hong Kong, savvy travellers are finding bright pickings in hotels around Central, Wanchai, Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui where rates have dropped by over 50%.

With hardboiled business travellers offering a modestly recession-proof cushion, luxury hotels have been less forthcoming with shock deals but even in this segment the wear is telling.

In places farther afield like Shatin, Tsuen Wan and Tuen Mun, hotel rates have plummeted by over 70%. A casual glance at any hotel booking site will reveal the extent of the collapse, described by many as “worse than the 2003 SARS” episode.

Expect slashed prices, free breakfasts, no cash down, and no cancellation fees – a buffet of hitherto unavailable options at rates starting from US$45 (RM187) for a decent four-star digs even on the Island.

Airlines have been more reluctant to drop ticket prices with some like Qantas slashing seat inventory to Hong Kong by deploying smaller aircraft and United Airlines suspending its Chicago-Hong Kong non-stop service.

While a city in turmoil will excite adventurers and bloggers it is not the stress-free tonic leisure travellers seek. Livid air passengers said much to students blocking check-in counters at the airport and were later met with downcast eyes and placards of abject apology.

It underscores the unpredictability and frustrations surrounding the protests. Hong Kong International Airport has tightened up security and you could have your passport and ticket checked at ingress.

While first-time visitors may baulk at the prospect of street confrontation and snarled traffic, seasoned travellers to the city will find it chugging on briskly insouciant with some notable differences – you can actually find seats at popular restaurants, taxis are fawningly available, and special offers on drinks flow thick and fast.

Weekdays tend to be more routine with protests mounted on weekends. Mornings and afternoons are usually better than evenings. And if you spot gas masks and yellow helmets (usually the best indicators of trouble to follow), take your holidaying elsewhere in the city.

Car-mad Singaporeans and Thais will moan but Hong Kong is hugely pedestrian-friendly and it is easy to cover the distance say from Causeway Bay to Central on foot, taking in sights and shopping along the way.

Bear in mind that the Hong Kong clashes are not quite in the head-breaking league of far more violent confrontations in places like Seoul, Paris, New York, Bangkok or New Delhi.

This is no matter for rejoicing of course but it places events in perspective, especially with exaggerated and doctored online reports that forced Twitter and Facebook to take action against bogus accounts.

State advisories thus far have not proscribed travel to the territory but suggest “increased caution”. Some offer a fair amount of detail on potential flashpoints along with sober advice to avoid demonstrations.

The Maltese government advises its nationals to steer clear of protests but points out, “In terms of safety, crime levels are very low in Hong Kong”.

South Korea cautions its nationals not to film protestors as this could be seen as provocative, while the Japanese are explicitly exhorted to avoid Yuen Long, Tuen Mun, and Tsuen Wan (in the New Territories) where “indiscriminate attacks” could take place, a reference to earlier triad assaults on protestors.

Preferring a surfeit of caution, Singapore has asked its nationals to defer non-essential travel to Hong Kong and university exchange programmes have been shelved.

In a recent two-week survey of frequent flyers by as many as 23.1% of the respondents said they still planned to travel to Hong Kong while 7.7% said they would visit “depending on the situation”.

As many as 61.5% said they had no plans to travel to the territory at this time and just one air passenger had cancelled a trip. Evidence suggests that opinions are changing fast and patience is running out.

Said one letter, “It is crazy to target the airport. When you disrupt travellers you lose their sympathy. I for one will never come through HK again for quite a while.”

The business climate in Hong Kong remains grim but for those keen on a deal, there has never been a better time to travel to one of the most expensive cities in the world. Tourists are never the target of political rage though they are sometimes collateral in the fallout.

While SARS and sweaty chickens were a definite no-no, the current overly exuberant discourse is not infectious. Travel smart. Travel safe.

Vijay Verghese is a Hong Kong-based journalist, columnist, and editor of the online magazines and

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