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.”


Hong Kong police warn of ‘live fire’ if they face deadly weapons from protesters

Updated 17 November 2019

Hong Kong police warn of ‘live fire’ if they face deadly weapons from protesters

  • Protests have tremored through the global financial hub since June
  • China has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate the dissent

HONG KONG: Hong Kong police Monday warned for the first time that they may use “live rounds” after pro-democracy protesters fired arrows and threw petrol bombs at officers at a beseiged university campus, as the crisis engulfing the city veered deeper into danger.
Protests have tremored through the global financial hub since June, with many in the city of 7.5 million people venting fury at eroding freedoms under Chinese rule.
China has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate the dissent, and there have been concerns that Beijing could send in troops to put an end to the spiralling unrest.
Three protesters have been shot by armed police in the unrelenting months of protests. But all in scuffles as chaotic street clashes played out — and without such warnings being given.
A day of intense clashes, which saw a police officer struck in the leg by an arrow and protesters meet police tear gas with volleys of petrol bombs, intensified as night fell.
Clashes rolled across Kowloon, with the epicenter around the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), where scores of defiant demonstrators set large fires to prevent police from conducting a threatened raid on the campus.
They hunkered down under umbrellas from occasional fire from water cannon and hurled molotov cocktails at an armored police vehicle, leaving it ablaze on a flyover near the campus.
Police declared the campus a “riot” scene — a rioting conviction carries up to 10 years in jail — and blocked exits as spokesman Louis Lau issued a stark warning in a Facebook live broadcast.
“I hereby warn rioters not to use petrol bombs, arrows, cars or any deadly weapons to attack police officers,” he said.
“If they continue such dangerous actions, we would have no choice but to use the minimum force necessary, including live rounds, to fire back.”
Police said they fired at a car late Sunday that had driven at a line of officers near the campus — but the vehicle reversed and escaped.
Protesters at the campus appeared resolute — a twist in tactics by a leaderless movement so far defined by its fluid, unpredictable nature.
“I feel scared. There’s no way out, all I can do is fight to the end,” said one protester joining the barricade in front of the university building.
“We need a base to keep our gear and have some rest at night before another fight in the morning,” another called Kason, 23, told AFP.
On Sunday, activists parried attempts by police to break through into the PolyU campus, firing rocks from a homemade catapult from the university roof, while an AFP reporter saw a team of masked archers — several carrying sports bows — patrolling the campus.
Violence has worsened in recent days, with two men killed in separate incidents linked to the protests this month.
Chinese President Xi Jinping this week issued his most strident comments on the crisis, saying it threatened the “one country, two systems” model under which Hong Kong has been ruled since the 1997 handover from Britain.
Demonstrators last week engineered a “Blossom Everywhere” campaign of blockades and vandalism, which forced the police to draft in prison officers as reinforcements, shut down large chunks of Hong Kong’s train network and close schools and shopping malls.
The movement, characterised by its fluidity and unpredictability, has started to coagulate in fixed locations, showing the protesters’ ability to switch tactics.
The protests started against a now-shelved bill to allow extradition to China but have billowed to encompass wider issues such as perceived police brutality and calls for universal suffrage in the former British colony.
The financial hub has been nudged into a recession by the unrelenting turmoil.
A poster circulating on social media called for the “dawn action” to continue on Monday.
“Get up early, directly target the regime, squeeze the economy to increase pressure,” it said.
The education bureau said schools will remain closed again on Monday.
Earlier on Sunday, dozens of government supporters gathered to clear barricades near the university campus — a sign of the divisions slicing through the city.
Many residents are wearied by the sapping protests. Others support the Chinese-backed city government.
Some applauded a Saturday clean-up by Chinese troops from a garrison of the People’s Liberation Army in Kowloon.
The garrison is usually confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, although it can be deployed at the request of the city’s government to help with public order breakdown or natural disasters.
Hong Kong’s government, which presides over a city that enjoys greater freedoms than the mainland, said it did not ask the PLA for help on Saturday.
The choreographed troop movement “has only compounded the impression that Beijing has simply ignored” Hong Kong’s unique political system, said analyst Dixon Sing.