Maintaining constant vigilance: How to travel safely amid civil unrest in Hong Kong

Graffiti on a bridge near the Observation Wheel on Hong Kong Island reminds pedestrians of the protesters' five demands.


By ANDREA SACHS | The Washington Post | Published: January 3, 2020

Hong Kong, I changed for you. Instead of bolting out of the hotel upon my arrival, leaving the day open to chance, I sat in my guest room figuring out how to avoid surprises. I checked the websites and apps of the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Railway, GovHK and Telegram, an encrypted messaging service. I read the most recent report from International SOS, a risk assessment firm. On my way out, I consulted with the reception desk about any security issues. And on the street, surrounded by “Free Hong Kong” graffiti and vandalized guardrails, I kept my antenna up, listening for any rumblings of discontent. I am typically an observant traveler, but in Hong Kong, I became vigilant.

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.

“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, and marches consume neighborhoods and popular thoroughfares. 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?

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. 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. 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.  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.

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% 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.

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 Hong-kongers 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. Hong-kongers, 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.”

After the tour, we grabbed a drink at Landmark, a nearby luxury mall. Young Hong-kongers 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.

Before the protests in Hong Kong, visitors jockeyed for space on the Sky Terrace 428, a viewing platform on Victoria Peak. Six months later, the crowds have disappeared.