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What Not to Do in Hong Kong: The Civil Unrest Survival Guide

Traveling to Hong Kong can seem like a daunting proposition right now given the recent civil unrest in the Chinese special administrative region. At FlyerTalk we are not taking a stance on whether or not you should go to Hong Kong. But, the members of the FlyerTalk community who have traveled to, or currently live in, Hong Kong during the demonstrations have collected a list of essential tools that every visitor needs to make informed decisions and employ safeguards to ensure that a visit to the one-of-a-kind destination is pleasurable and, most importantly, out of harm’s way.

Dramatic newspaper headlines and a rapidly changing situation on the ground have some travelers reconsidering upcoming plans to travel to Hong Kong. Flyertalk members in the know are here to help Hong Kong-bound flyers to navigate unusual circumstances and interesting times.

Should I Postpone My Trip to Hong Kong During the Demonstrations?

So far, the U.S. State Department is not urging travelers to avoid the special administrative region of China. The Homeland Security agency’s advice that visitors “exercise increased caution due to civil unrest” has not changed since a string of anti-government protests (which have sometimes turned violent) first kicked off this past spring.

Although travelers need to individually assess the amount of risk they personally feel comfortable undertaking, right now, those FlyerTalkers on the ground in Hong Kong say that there’s no need to panic about your upcoming trip. While a bit of extra awareness of one’s surroundings might be in order, there is no need to reschedule a visit to the remarkable region. Of course, there is no guarantee that the fluid situation won’t change for the worse overnight.

Should the Hong Kong government or officials in Beijing act decisively to suppress the anti-government demonstrations, things could get out of hand quickly. On the other hand, the protests show no sign of petering out on their own, meaning today might just be as good a day to visit Hong Kong as any day in the near future.

For bargain hunters, there may be yet another reason not to put off travel to Hong Kong. The strain on the tourism industry has led hotels, airlines and tourist attractions to offer deep discounts. As an added bonus, normally crowded destinations such as Hong Kong Disneyland are decidedly less packed with tourists.

If I Want to Change My Flight to Hong Kong, Will Airlines Charge Me?

When Hong Kong International Airport (HKG) was forced to close on two separate occasions in August due to demonstrations in the terminal, most carriers offered passengers change fee waivers if they wanted to reschedule their flights through the major regional transportation hub. Those same airlines have not been nearly as flexible in response to subsequent incidents of civil unrest – even in circumstances in which ground transportation to and from Hong Kong airport came to a near standstill due to demonstrations. Those who have had to fly to Hong Kong during the demonstrations report that airlines tend to be understanding when the demonstrations require you to change your travel plans. A few airlines have even published their rebooking policies for travel to Hong Kong, so it’s worth a quick Google.

Travel insurance is always a good idea, but in the case of travel to Hong Kong, this might be more complicated than anticipated. Many policies, including those issued automatically for select credit cardholders, specifically exclude coverage for circumstances arising from “acts of war or civil unrest.” For those who rely on a favorite insurance package when traveling, it might be worth taking the time to read the small print before heading to Hong Kong.

Where Shouldn’t I Go to Stay Safe in Hong Kong During the Demonstrations?

According to firsthand accounts from Flyertalkers on the ground, there are large swaths of Hong Kong where a visitor might not see any signs of civil unrest at all. There are also areas more prone to demonstrations and conflicts between police and protesters. Potential hotspots and targeted businesses include areas near Best Mart 360, China Travel Service Entry Permit Service Centers, banks (especially Chinese-owned banks), government buildings, MTR public transit facilities, police stations, and any densely packed retail areas.

Unrest tends to be less common in the early morning hours. Your hotel’s concierge will likely have detailed and up-to-date information about areas to avoid and areas that are relatively problem-free, as well as the best times to be out and about.

Although there a number of well-known trouble spots, Flyertalk members caution that sometimes violent confrontations between police and protestors can spring up quickly at any place and at any time. Being aware of one’s surroundings seems to be key. Tourists who notice an especially large police presence or even small demonstrations are advised to move on with deliberate intention.

What to Wear in Hong Kong

Although some locals have taken to carrying gas masks (and, in some cases, portable oxygen bottles) in case they happen to inadvertently encounter police tear gas, tourists should not do this, lest they be mistaken for demonstrators by authorities. To this end, it is also advised that tourists avoid wearing dark coats and white clothing. Recording or photographing police or demonstrators can likewise bring unwanted attention.

Other essential advice from the forums includes carrying enough cash to weather an extended period of unrest and having the address and phone number of the nearest consulate or embassy at the ready. This is, of course, a good rule of thumb to follow whenever and wherever one happens to be traveling abroad.

How to Get Around

Public transportation may be a hotspot for demonstrations, but that doesn’t mean that taxis, ride-shares or rental cars are a much better option. Protestors have made a point of disrupting traffic, especially to and from the airport. No matter how passengers plan travel to Hong Kong Airport, leaving early is strongly advised. Both mass transit and traffic reportedly run smoothest in the morning hours and deteriorate throughout the day when incidents of civil unrest occur.

What Not to Do in Hong Kong

Some foreign nationals have already started to arrive in Hong Kong with the intention of supporting the protest movement. If questioned by immigration officials about the nature of your visit to Hong Kong, it is a good idea to steer clear of expressing any political views about the current unrest. There are already isolated reports of visitors being turned away because of being suspected of entering the country to support the anti-government demonstrations.

It is very much a personal choice whether or not to publicly express support for the pro-democracy movement (for many, it is nothing less than an obligation), but travelers should be aware there may be a real cost to publicly voicing said support. While visitors to Hong Kong might not see negative consequences as a result of taking a pro-demonstration stance on social media, travelers who intend to enter mainland China may well face scrutiny after posting their views.

Cathay Pacific crew members have lost their jobs, been banned from entering Chinese airspace and, in some cases, faced harassment from regulatory agencies for simply expressing support for the movement on social media. Likewise, the seven-word tweet from a midlevel NBA executive, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong,” potentially cost the league billions of dollars when Chinese officials retaliated.

Photos are also a “don’t.” According to FlyerTalkers on the ground, “in evening police sometimes (but not too often) board buses at roadblocks and search passengers’ possessions.” If you have photos, news clippings or even apps related to the demonstrations on your phone may lead to a confrontation with authorities.” They added that “Taking photos of Lennon Walls say is fine, but not shots with people in the frame. Search youtube if you want videos. I’d also suggest caution expressing yourself with strangers while in HK.”

a screenshot of HKMap.live

Staying Informed

Having up-to-date information is the very best way to make educated decisions about traveling to and within Hong Kong. The Flyertalk threads on Hong Kong like the Hong Kong Civil Unrest – Survival Guide Q&As are updated 24-hours-a-day and make a great supplement (but not a substitute) for official sources such as the U.S. State Department website. Keeping a close eye on local news reports is also essential.

Hkmap.live is probably the best up-to-the-minute map of trouble spots, but the legends are in Chinese,” recommends a FlyerTalker in the forums. “Nonetheless you can use it as a guide to troubled areas: where there’s a big congregation of symbols there’s probably trouble, but scattered symbols are probably just reports of police sightings and such. A little white cloud means tear gas, a small colored flag means police have given a warning and are about to move in, blue water drops mean . . . well you can figure it out.”

The Bottom Line

While the current unrest in Hong Kong might be fairly easy to avoid for frequent visitors and locals, that might not be the experience for first-time visitors and infrequent tourists. More importantly, the situation today will almost certainly be different from the situation last month or the experience of someone traveling to the city next week. For an idea of what it was like to travel to Hong Kong, just last week, read this trip report from a “white male American with no ability to speak Cantonese” who was visiting Hong Kong for the first time. He didn’t encounter any major trouble during his trip but,

“I also didn’t get to do everything I’d hoped to do, and from this first-time visitor’s experience, there was a pall cast over the city. I definitely felt more anxiety than I anticipated (“Where are the protests now?” “Will MTR shut down before I can get back?” “What’s Carrie Lam going to announce at 7?”) I went to Macau on Wednesday and to Cheung Chau (Thanks, Henry from 001, for the rec!) on Thursday morning to get a bit of a break from it, though only a handful of times did I feel any concern about my safety – trying to get out of a packed Yau Ma Tei station being one notable instance.

“There were days that I would go places and it didn’t seem like anything was amiss, but then other places seemed half-deserted. I also found myself having a hard time enjoying my vacation knowing what was taking place not that far away. One night I was standing on the 30th floor at the Horizonte Lounge. To the south, I could see the Symphony of Lights. Turning the other direction, at about the same distance, I could see the lights of a convoy of police vehicles as they cleared Nathan Road yet again. That’s a defining memory of Hong Kong for me.”



If you have more questions about whether or not you should travel to Hong Kong during the demonstrations, or want to stay updated on the situation on the ground, you can ask questions and follow the developing situation in Hong Kong with up-to-the-minute updates in the Hong Kong and Macau forums.


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