British holidaymakers in Hong Kong should stay vigilant of developments in the city following exchanges between police and protesters at the Polytechnic University, says the UK Foreign Office.
Last week student protesters filed into and occupied the university campus. Subsequently police surrounded the campus and protestors were effectively trapped.
The protest is part of the large-scale political demonstrations that have been held in Hong Kong since June 2019, including in popular tourist areas.
In August, holidaymakers were warned not to travel to the airport as all flights out of the territory were cancelled when pro-democracy campaigners occupied Hong Kong International. The protests led to the cancellation of hundreds of flights. At the time, airport authorities told all passengers to leave the terminal buildings as soon as possible and contact “their respective airlines for flight arrangements”.
Shortly after, the Airport Authority secured an interim court injunction order to ban protesters from the airport following a five-day mass sit-in.
On August 31 protesters blocked roads to the airport and trains were halted, leaving passengers to walk to the airport terminal. In this instance, most flights went ahead as normal but some delays were reported.
Flights have been operating smoothly since September, but visitors should allow extra time to travel to and from the airport.
Since June, the UK Foreign Office has warned British visitors to Hong Kong to be vigilant and be prepared for the situation to change quickly, “with the potential for violence”. The latest update to its advice came earlier this week.
"In recent days, there have been clashes around a number of universities, including the Chinese University of Hong Kong in Sha Tin, Hong Kong University in Pok Ful Lam and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom," it said. "If you’re studying at a university where protests are taking place, you should avoid areas where protestors are gathered, take extra care when moving around the campus and follow the advice of the authorities."
It said that while a number of peaceful protests are taking place others have led to clashes between protesters and police involving significant violence.
"The situation is volatile and visitors to the area around the university in Hung Hom should exercise caution and be alert to the changing situation. Previous demonstrations have led to sections of the city being closed off and temporary suspension of public transport without warning," it said.
Some Mass Transit Railway (MTR) metro stations have been closed to damage during the protests while other demonstrations have led to sections of the city being closed off or subject to temporary suspensions of public transport without warning. The FCO said it expected these to continue, and warned of becoming caught up in “unauthorised protests”.
How long will the protests continue for?
The initial protests were sparked by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but they have since evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
The broader ambitions of the movement has made their end harder to predict. The city has been quiet in recent days, according to Telegraph Travel's Hong Kong expert Lee Cobaj, but the situation could change after the local elections on November 24.
Is it safe to be in the city?
Cobaj said: "The city remains peaceful the majority of the time with life ticking over pretty much as normal. While many of the city's biggest attractions, such as Victoria Peak, Big Buddha, the beaches, outlying islands and hiking trails, are blissfully quiet."
"The situation is very unpredictable so anyone visiting must be prepared for some disruption, whether it’s the government shutting down public transport or protesters taking over neighbourhoods. Any visitor should also now try to carry their passports with them at all times. There’s quite a large police presence on the streets at times and although tourists are unlikely to be stopped, some have been and have been asked to identify themselves."
The Hong Kong Government announced in October that in certain circumstances it may not be permitted for individuals to wear a "facial covering," which might prevent identification.
In July, Cobaj pointed towards a statement released by the protest movement apologising to visitors for any disruption. “Dear travellers, please forgive us for the ‘unexpected’ Hong Kong,” it read. “You’re met with a broken, torn-apart city. You weren’t able to see the Hong Kong you’ve always wanted to see.
“Yet this image you so anticipated is exactly what we’re fighting to protect. We’re fighting to put these broken pieces back together, to preserve what makes this city our home"
The protests have continued since. Cobaj said: "Over the last six months images of mass protests, both peaceful and increasingly violent, have dominated the news, as a result of Chief Executive Carrie Lam's attempt to introduce a bill which Hong Kong people feared would erode their human rights and autonomy from China.
"Since then, the airport has been occupied, transportation systems shut down at short notice, and tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and, on occasion, live ammunition have become standard use for the police to clear the streets of pro-democracy protesters. And while this might not sound like the makings of a fantastic holiday, the Foreign Office's advice is that it is still safe to travel to Hong Kong, with a warning to remain vigilant."
The FCO says nearly 600,000 Britons visited Hong Kong last year and that most visits were trouble-free. Of safety and security, it says the level of violent crime is very low, but pick-pocketing and other street crime can occur. It adds that personal attacks, including sexual assaults, are also rare.
Are the protests putting people off visiting?
Financial secretary Paul Chan said in September that Hong Kong had seen a 40 per cent drop in tourist arrivals in August 2019, compared to August 2018.
He added in his blog post that hotels in some locations had seen occupancy rates drop by about half, while room rates had fallen by 40 to 70 per cent.
"It is worrying that there is no sign of improvement in the near future," he wrote.
Visitors from mainland China form the largest part of the Hong Kong tourism industry.
The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions said in July that the number of tour groups from mainland China has declined to 5,641 in June from a monthly average of 7,800 in the beginning of the year.
Flight analysts ForwardKeys reported in October that the number of mainland Chinese visitors flying to Hong Kong had dropped by over 50 per cent from July 1 to September 23, a period that included flight cancellations and a brief closure of Hong Kong airport.
Forward bookings for travel to Hong Kong from mainland China between September 24 and December 30 were down 58.2 per cent on the equivalent point in 2018.
According to the latest figures from the Hong Kong Tourist Board, the total number of visitors to Hong Kong in September was down by 34 per cent on the same month last year.
Can I cancel my trip?
You can but it is likely to cost you. The Foreign Office has not warned against travel to Hong Kong and probably won't do so as long as the demonstrations continue as they have been, so tour operators are under no obligation to offer a refund.
If your trip has been dramatically altered by the protests, or planned marches, contact your tour operator, accommodation or insurer to discuss your options.
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