In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see silver lining

Tourists are scared off by the protests which have at times caused disruptions of traffic and public transport. (File/AFP)
Updated 18 October 2019

In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see silver lining

  • The demonstrations have made it tough for local businesses
  • Tourists are enjoying emptier ques at places like Disney

HONG KONG: No tiresome wait for hugs and kisses from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. No queue at all for Hyperspace Mountain, where thrill-seekers are so scarce that Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar speaks to himself in the dark.
Tinker Bell gazes out over rows of empty seats on the train to Hong Kong Disneyland that was far busier before tourists were scared off by anti-government protests shaking this international hub for business and fun.
That’s tough for local business but great for Disney fans like Yunice Tsui and her 7 and 4-year-old daughters, adorable in Minnie headbands. With an annual pass to the park she’s already toured nine times, Tsui is better placed than most to size up the body-blow to Hong Kong visitor numbers from the often violent demonstrations, now in their fifth month.
“Before June, you’d generally queue for more than 30 minutes for each ride. For the last few times since July, we’ve been here about two-to-three times, every time it’s about a five-to-six minute wait to queue up for a ride. There are certainly less people, I would say 60% less. Kids are very happy because after a ride, they can go queue up for another one and play again.”
The impact of the protests on tourism is verging on catastrophic for Hong Kong, one of the world’s great destinations and geared up to receive 65 million visitors a year.
On Victoria Peak, restaurants with knock-out nighttime views of the city’s neon-lit skyscrapers stand empty. The snaking lines of tourists for the clicketty-clacketty 19th-century tram to the top are now just a memory.
The Dragon Boat Carnival in June, when protests started: canceled. A Wine & Dine Festival scheduled for the end of this month: scrapped, too. Hong Kong received 2.3 million fewer visitors in August compared with a year earlier, largely trips that people from elsewhere in China are no longer making to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. September visitor numbers, due Oct. 31, are unlikely to be any better, given recent protest-related violence and chaos.
“It’s deserted,” said Dyutimoy Chakraborty, who runs the Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen & Bar opposite the Peak Tram. The tram now closes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, because of “potential demonstrations and protests in the nearby area.”
“Normally, there would be a huge queue,” Chakraborty said on a recent weeknight. “Since the protests started, it has been like this.”
The eatery has lost almost half of its weekday business, he added.
“You think of what you could have made and what you are making at the moment,” he said. “That difference, yes, it hurts.”
Protester leaflets advise, “You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city,” and the protests have at times caused monumental disruptions of traffic and public transport.
But even when the protests have involved hundreds of thousands of people, they’ve generally been confined to only a few areas in this semi-tropical former British colony of 7 million.
And the tourists who come anyway are finding bargain-basement hotel rates, two-for-one deals, easy late checkouts and other sweeteners.
Visiting this month from Taiwan, where he works as a teacher, South African traveler Winand Koch paid the equivalent of just $65 per night for a room in a comfy hotel that was charging nearly quadruple that rate when he first checked a few months back. Of all his trips to Hong Kong, the two-day stay with his sister, Betro, was “one of the best,” he said.
“I’ve never seen Hong Kong this quiet before,” he said. “We didn’t have to queue anywhere. We could get in everywhere.”
Trundling along with suitcases through crowds of demonstrators, hoping to catch a train to the airport a day after protest violence shut down the entire rail network, Koch said he’d enjoyed being “part of history.”
“By accident ran into the protest today,” he said. “But it was fun, actually, the people were all friendly, helping us through ... they even gave us masks.”
Aside from the risk of stumbling unawares into street battles and clouds of police tear gas — as some tourists have to their coughing, spluttering dismay — Hong Kong remains a pleasant city. Visitors of either sex needn’t think twice about venturing out late at night or while wearing valuables. For the moment, the US State Department still only recommends that visitors exercise extra caution. A similarly worded travel advisory from the British government says, “most visits are trouble free.”
Edgar Ruiz said he flew from Mexico “just to see the protests.”
“I wanted to experience it firsthand. This is big!” he said. “I want to be telling people that I was here when this happened, because it is going to be major in history.”
Even some Hong Kong residents are enjoying a respite from the usual floods of visitors, mainly from mainland China. The number of total arrivals has almost doubled over the past decade, from 36 million in 2010 to 65 million last year.
Up on the Peak, Hong Kong-born Isaac Mercado, a 26-year-old banking analyst, was luxuriating in the unusual emptiness.
“We used to have a quiet city,” he said. Now, with fewer visitors, “I get the chance to explore more a bit on my own, and not be crammed with loads of tourists. So, it’s getting more like my home, rather than a tourist city.”


On 16th birthday, California student opens fire at his high school, killing two

Updated 15 November 2019

On 16th birthday, California student opens fire at his high school, killing two

SANTA CLARITA, California: A Southern California high school student pulled a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun from his backpack and fired on fellow classmates on Thursday morning, killing two and wounding three others.
He saved the last bullet for himself. It was his 16th birthday.
The teenaged gunman, whose name was not provided by police, survived the self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head but was in grave condition in hospital, law enforcement officials said.
Captain Kent Wegener of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department told reporters the entire incident, captured on videotape, took 16 seconds as the young man stood in one spot and fired on one student after another.
“From right where he was standing, he doesn’t chase anybody, he fires from where he is until he shoots himself,” Wegener said.
The scene at Saugus High School was reminiscent of other mass shootings at US schools, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a former student with an assault gun killed 17 people on Feb. 14, 2018.
Wegener confirmed the suspect posted a message on his Instagram account before the shooting that said: “Saugus have fun at school tomorrow.” The post was later taken down.
The two slain students were a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy. Two other girls, aged 14 and 15, were wounded, as was a 14-year old boy, Wegener said.

Students are evacuated from Saugus High School onto a school bus after a shooting at the school left two students dead and three wounded on Nove. 14, 2019 in Santa Clarita, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)


Motive unknown
Investigators said they did not yet know what led the student to open fire at the school 40 miles (65 km) north of Los Angeles.
Police said the accused shooter had acted alone. Investigators descended on his family home, blocking off the street. They found no further danger there.
A next-door neighbor, registered nurse Jared Axen, said the suspect had seemed introverted, quiet and sad, possibly despondent over the loss of his father from a heart attack in December 2017.
Axen, 33, said it was the boy who found his father deceased, not long after the older man had regained his sobriety and gotten his life “back on track” after years of struggling with alcohol abuse.
“I would say he (the boy) was hurting and couldn’t ask for help,” Axen said of the suspect, who was a track athlete at the school, involved in Boy Scouts and liked the outdoors, going on hunting trips with his father.
He was of mixed race, born to Japanese-born mother and white father, with an older sister who became a nurse and moved away.
“I would ask him how school was ... he would never bring up concerns of bullying or being a loaner there,” Axen said.
There was no immediate word on where the teen gunman obtained the weapon.
“How do we come out of tragedy? We need to say ‘No more!’ This is a tragic event. It happens too frequently,” said Captain Robert Lewis of Santa Clarita Valley sheriff’s station, striking an emotional note in an otherwise somber news conference.


Latest school shooting
A 16-year-old Saugus High School junior named Pamela, who spoke to Reuters on condition that she not give her last name, said she was in her first-period choir class when some girls ran into the room and said there was a shooting going on.
“Our teacher immediately grabbed a fire extinguisher and got us into her office and locked the door,” Pamela said, adding that one of the girls had been shot in the shoulder.
Taylor Hardges reported seeing people running in the hallways shouting “Run!” She raced into a classroom, where a teacher barricaded the room.
“We’ve had drills. It doesn’t prepare you for the real thing,” she said after reuniting with her father at a designated spot in Santa Clarita’s Central Park.
Her father, Terrence Hardges, said he felt his heart race after Taylor texted him from inside the classroom with the message: “I love you. I’m pinned in a room. We’re locked in.”
The shooting at Saugus was the 85th incidence of gunfire at a school this year, according to Everytown, a gun control advocacy group. It seems sure to reignite a debate over gun control in the 2020 presidential election.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the shooting at Columbine High School, where two teenagers went on a rampage, fatally shooting 12 students and a teacher and wounding more than 20 others before killing themselves.