Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 9 December 2019

Travelling to Hong Kong amid protests: what you need to know

Amid ongoing unrest, Etihad has waived fees for passengers that want to change travel plans
Hong Kong tourist numbers have dropped since protests began, but is it safe to visit? 

Here's what travellers to Hong Kong need to know when visiting the city.

What’s going on at Hong Kong airport?

On Tuesday, Hong Kong International Airport (HGK) was shut down for a second consecutive day as protesters filled the terminal. This caused hundreds of flight cancellations and left thousands of passengers stranded. In the most recent closure, police in riot gear entered the airport in an attempt to regain control of HKG. Protesters erected barricades against these forces and clashes ensued, some of which were violent.

By the early hours of Wednesday morning, the situation had calmed. However, the spillover effects of the airport closure has affected travel plans for many visitors.

Is the airport open?

Demonstrators on the arrival hall floor at Hong Kong International Airport. Bloomberg

Hong Kong International Airport slowly started to reopen on Wednesday after two days of shutdowns. A handful of protesters remained in place but check-in desks and immigration services were operating and flights were departing as scheduled.

That being said, the airport reopened for a period on Tuesday but was shut down again in the afternoon as protesters returned to the terminal. Travellers flying out of Hong Kong should pay attention to the latest airport information before going to the airport.

Could the airport close again?

Hong Kong's airport authorities published an injunction on Wednesday morning preventing people from demonstrating or obstructing operations at the airport.

It’s not immediately clear what effect this will have in practice as many airport staff had previously tried and failed to implement security measures.

New security rules have also been put in place to verify that everyone entering the airport area must now have a passport and itinerary — which could signal the end of these protests.

Are flights still being cancelled?

Travellers check on information amid flight cancellations at the airport in Hong Kong. AP

Emirates, Etihad and many other major airlines had to cancel flights after the authorities closed all check-ins at Hong Kong International Airport.

Etihad Airways flight EY833 left Hong Kong on August 13 as scheduled, but many passengers were not able to board due to the abrupt shutdown of departure immigration processing. Those passengers are booked on to the same flight number for departure today – August 14.

Etihad advises passengers to arrive early for the flight. “To assist those travelling, our check-in counters in Hong Kong will open five hours prior to departure,” an Etihad representative told The National.

Other airlines also cancelled flights today. These affect services to Indonesia, the Philippines, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Thailand and various destinations in and around China and Hong Kong.

Can I cancel my flight?

Etihad is opening check-in counters early and allowing passengers to change flights without paying fees. Etihad 

Some airlines have announced that passengers can cancel or change their flights without incurring fees.

Etihad Airways is offering passengers a fee waiver until Monday, August 19. In a statement to The National a representative said: “Any guests affected by this disruption on flights to or from Hong Kong will be able to rebook on subsequent flights, subject to availability, without standard rebooking fees. This waiver will apply until August 19.”

Hong Kong’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, is also allowing passengers to change selected flights without a fee. United Airlines are waiving change fees and any fare difference on flights departing for Hong Kong before Tuesday, August 20. American Airlines are also offering fee waivers on selected Hong Kong flights.

Other airlines, including Emirates, are rebooking passengers on alternative flights, but have no updated information on active waivers.

Why did this happen?

Pro-democracy protestors block the entrance to the airport terminals after a scuffle with police at Hong Kong's international airport late. AFP

Protests began when the Hong Kong government proposed plans that would allow citizens of the island to be deported to mainland China. After initial protests, the original bill was scrapped, but protests expanded to call for an investigation into allegations of police brutality and calls for political reform. Airport protesters began arriving at Hong Kong International on Monday morning in a bid to draw more international attention to their plight.

The protesters have widespread support from many people in Hong Kong. British resident Chris Walling said there is "absolute widespread support for the cause" but added there was a "delicate connection between the radical minority and peaceful majority as clashes become more violent".

Is it safe to visit?

Opinion varies. For Walling, the city is still safe but travellers must be aware of what’s going on. “Keep your wits about you, be aware of where demonstrations are taking place and avoid those areas," he said. "With protesters and police exchanging missiles and tear gas, there are violent clashes which should be avoided at all costs. You do not want to become tangled in these crowds."

“It’s also advised not to wear black or white clothing near any protests as these colours represent two sides in the protests,” he said.

Protests have affected public transport in Hong Kong. 

Walling said travellers should know that the situation is evolving daily. “Protester actions have certainly moved on from the earlier broadly peaceful marches limited to the weekends to actively trying to disrupt services during the week such as the MTR trains, or holding mass strike actions.

"However, most of this has been notified to the public in advance so it’s easy to manage its impact on your day. That said the airport sit-in caught people by surprise, probably a sign that there's worse to come.”

However, a user at r/HongKong on Reddit explicitly asked people not to visit now in a post entitled "People around the world, please stop coming to HK".

The post from u/joker_wcy said: “If you plan to visit or have a layover in Hong Kong, I advise you to cancel your trip.”

It went on to cite safety, traffic disruptions and the impact that protesters are hoping to gain by disrupting the country's tourism as the reasons. It ended with: “I would like to apologise for the inconvenience we caused.”

Travel warnings

Several countries have issued travel advisories or heightened travel warnings for Hong Kong. The UAE consulate in Hong Kong updated its travel advice on twitter as HKG closed for the first time.

Other travel warnings have been issued by Japan, Australia, Ireland, South Korea, the UK and Taiwan.

Should I go to Hong Kong?

Demonstrators on the arrival hall floor at Hong Kong International Airport. Bloomberg

Many people seem to think no as figures released by the Hong Kong Tourism Board show a double-digit decline in tourists since the protests began.

For Walling, safety isn’t the main reason to avoid Hong Kong at the moment. “Beyond the protests Hong Kong is regarded as one of the safest cities in the world and I don't suspect this will change,” he says. “If you are vigilant and avoid the hotspots it should be fine. Hong Kong is a large and wonderful city so it wouldn’t be too difficult. The summer weather is a greater reason to postpone a trip! Bring an umbrella and deodorant, it's hot, humid, and we've just had the first typhoon of the season.”

Reddit user u/joker_wcy asked tourists to delay, rather than cancel, travel: “If you wish to visit Hong Kong, please visit when we reach our goals. You will be very welcomed.”

Updated: August 14, 2019 06:27 PM