Commentary: The security outlook if you travel to Hong Kong
An assessment of business-as-usual during weekdays may not hold up in the coming weeks as the situation continues to evolve, says SafePro’s Ross Darrell Feingold.
SINGAPORE: Scenes of clashes between police and protesters, along with disruption to public infrastructure, have become a staple of global media reports about Hong Kong.
Airport protests, the storming of legislative chambers and large rallies have been held over the last few months.
The number of days since large public protests began in Hong Kong recently exceeded the 79 days of disruption caused by the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Central in 2014, and the prolonged and increasingly violent events can be disruptive for visitors and residents.
Business and leisure travellers are now confronted with the difficult decision of whether to proceed with a visit to Hong Kong.
My advice as a security expert would be to postpone non-essential travel to HK and continue to monitor for another two weeks especially when school terms starts over these next few days.
BUSINESS-AS-USUAL AT MOST TIMES OF THE WEEK
The good news is that throughout the past three months, at least from Monday to Friday during daytime hours, the operating environment, whether on Hong Kong island or in Kowloon, can be described as “business-as-usual”.
This includes morning commutes or daytime travel whether by road or Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR).
Although there are examples of businesses or schools dismissing staff and students early during the week, few multinational companies have deemed it necessary to activate business continuity locations or direct non-essential staff to remain at home.
Still, the airport closures in mid-August, which occurred over a Monday and Tuesday, exemplify how a business-as-usual environment can rapidly change. Despite an injunction granted to airport authorities to ban protesters from entering, Sunday (Sep 1) also saw 25 flights cancelled after protesters charged police barriers and clashed with riot police.
WEEKENDS CAN BRING UNPREDICTABLE PROTESTS
The more unpredictable and violent clashes tend to occur during weekends, when demonstrations swell, protesters (or counter-protesters) use laser pointers, petrol bombs and metal rods, and police respond with tear gas, bean bag projectiles and water cannons.
These have occurred both during the day and at night throughout Hong Kong and Kowloon.
This makes weekend events dangerous for leisure travellers with plans to visit popular tourist destinations, or business travellers seeking to unwind with a weekend stay who might only confine their travel to popular nightlife districts.
Following several weekends in which protest events descended into clashes, the weekend of Aug 17 to 18 was a peaceful but brief respite. The weekends of Aug 24 and Aug 31 saw a return to clashes, and the outlook for upcoming weekends concerns us.
With protesters kicking off another day of potential turmoil on Monday (Sep 2), the assessment of business-as-usual during weekdays may not hold up in the coming weeks as the situation continues to evolve.
Authorities recently imposed stringent security measures at the curbside entrances and Airport Express stations to Hong Kong International Airport.
Notwithstanding this, any one of the convergence of sufficient numbers of protesters at either the airport, roads leading to the airport, Cathay Pacific’s crew reporting centre adjoining the airport, or at Airport Express stations, can result in an airport closure.
The disruption to in-town check-in services at the Airport Express stations in Hong Kong and Kowloon (and to a lesser extent, disruption to the Tsing Yi Airport Express Station which does not offer check-in services) would prevent passengers from reaching the airport.
Other public facilities subject to disruption include the tunnels beneath Victoria Harbour used by cars, taxis and buses, major thoroughfares, and the MTR.
As this weekend has shown, the use of court injunctions to ban protesters from critical infrastructure and facilitate speedier removal might be effective only to the extent operators or police have sufficient personnel onsite to enforce an injunction, and does not prevent both sides from becoming more aggressive in these scenarios.
Prior to departure, travellers should consider purchasing trip disruption insurance, though standard exclusions and an often difficult claims process should also be factored in.
WATCH GOVERNMENT TRAVEL ADVISORIES BUT THE BEST INFORMATION IS LOCAL
Some countries with consulates in Hong Kong have issued travel advisories, including Australia, Singapore, United Kingdom, and the United States, though as of now, none advise against any travel.
For diplomatic reasons, countries tend to be cautious in recommending against all travel. Bureaucratic processes within a foreign ministry can also cause significant delays in updating information for the most recent developments or upcoming publicly announced rallies, parades or flash mobs.
I would advise travellers to follow the social media accounts of Hong Kong government agencies such as the Police Department and Transport Department, as well as the MTR. These are sources for timely updates in English and Mandarin about police actions and transport disruptions.
LEISURE HOLIDAYS AND BUSINESS TRAVELS
Leisure travellers should re-assess whether or not to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks when airline operations might be pulled.
Cathay Pacific has dismissed staff who participated in or endorsed protests, Hong Kong Airlines is forcing staff to take unpaid leave, and United Airlines has announced suspension of Chicago – Hong Kong flights as of Sep 9.
Staffing and equipment issues can lead to delays or cancellations even if the airport is open. When the airport suddenly closes, few staff are available to answer traveller questions, which is especially frustrating for leisure travellers without the support of a corporate travel team or travel agency.
For business travellers, especially those who must attend trade shows and conventions scheduled long in advance, we recommend staying in hotels near to the conference venue to minimise travel within Hong Kong. If visiting Hong Kong for a business meeting, stay in hotels close to meeting locations.
An unfortunate outcome of the spread of protests to outlying districts is that shifting a meeting location or hotel choice to such districts does not guarantee unrest can be avoided.
The sudden appearance of a flash mob is also an opportunity for pickpockets to target visitors observing events.
Those with respiratory problems should avoid travel, and all visitors should carry essentials including face masks, water, and a small bottle of eye wash. Visitors should also monitor efforts to mobilise a sudden, large amount of cash withdrawals from automated teller machines, with the goal of crashing Hong Kong’s ATM system.
Travellers visiting for the first time should keep in mind that ride-hailing apps available in other locations in Asia might not operate in Hong Kong. Visitors who do not speak Cantonese should always carry the address written in Chinese characters of both their destinations and where they are staying.
HOW AGGRESSIVE CAN PROTESTS GET
Whether and how the protests may escalate in the coming weeks depends on whether the Hong Kong government can expedite both dialogue with protest groups and investigations into police conduct so as to restore confidence among members of the public who now view both government and police suspiciously.
Most protesters want to maintain popular support even while they test the limit of public tolerance for civil disobedience without violence; some protesters will instead test the tolerance for violence as well.
Lastly, business and leisure visitors must avoid involvement in protests.
A foreign national is not immune from detention and prosecution, even if one is mistakenly charged despite only being an observer, and criminal charges can have adverse consequences both at home and for travel to other countries.
Ross Darrell Feingold is director, business development at SafePro Group, a Singapore-based consultancy that advises corporate clients about travel safety and risk mitigation around the world.