In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see the silver lining

John Leicester
Associated Press

Hong Kong – No tiresome wait for hugs and kisses from Mickey and Minnie Mouse. No queue at all for Hyperspace Mountain, where thrill-seekers are so scarce that Star Wars’ Admiral Ackbar speaks to himself in the dark.

Tinker Bell gazes out over rows of empty seats on the train to Hong Kong Disneyland that was far busier before tourists were scared off by anti-government protests shaking this international hub for business and fun.

Protesters wear masks of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hong Kong, Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters are donning cartoon/superheroes masks as they formed a human chain across the semiautonomous Chinese city, in defiance of a government ban on face coverings.

That’s tough for local business but great for Disney fans like Yunice Tsui and her 7 and 4-year-old daughters, adorable in Minnie headbands. With an annual pass to the park she’s already toured nine times, Tsui is better placed than most to size up the body-blow to Hong Kong visitor numbers from the often violent demonstrations, now in their fifth month.

“Before June, you’d generally queue for more than 30 minutes for each ride. For the last few times since July, we’ve been here about two-to-three times, every time it’s about a five-to-six minute wait to queue up for a ride. There are certainly less people, I would say 60% less. Kids are very happy because after a ride, they can go queue up for another one and play again.”

The impact of the protests on tourism is verging on catastrophic for Hong Kong, one of the world’s great destinations and geared up to receive 65 million visitors a year.

On Victoria Peak, restaurants with knock-out nighttime views of the city’s neon-lit skyscrapers stand empty. The snaking lines of tourists for the clicketty-clacketty 19th-century tram to the top are now just a memory.

The Dragon Boat Carnival in June, when protests started: canceled. A Wine & Dine Festival scheduled for the end of this month: scrapped, too. Hong Kong received 2.3 million fewer visitors in August compared with a year earlier, largely trips that people from elsewhere in China are no longer making to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. September visitor numbers, due Oct. 31, are unlikely to be any better, given recent protest-related violence and chaos.

“It’s deserted,” said Dyutimoy Chakraborty, who runs the Gordon Ramsay Bread Street Kitchen & Bar opposite the Peak Tram. The tram now closes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, because of “potential demonstrations and protests in the nearby area.”

“Normally, there would be a huge queue,” Chakraborty said on a recent weeknight. “Since the protests started, it has been like this.”

The eatery has lost nearly half of its weekday business, he added.

Protester leaflets advise, “You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city,” and the protests have at times caused monumental disruptions of traffic and public transport.

But even when the protests have involved hundreds of thousands of people, they’ve generally been confined to only a few areas in this semi-tropical former British colony of 7 million.

And the tourists who come anyway are finding bargain-basement hotel rates, two-for-one deals, easy late checkouts and other sweeteners.