TORONTO — The news reports coming in from Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands are heartbreaking, and the images even more so.
This story originally ran in the Aug. 29, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — There could be a light at the end of the tunnel for anyone selling Hong Kong, now that government officials have withdrawn the controversial extradition bill. Here in Canada, tour operators are waiting to see how the situation in Hong Kong unfolds.
This summer’s media coverage of Hong Kong has been filled with images of hundreds of thousands of people rallying in the streets to demand full democratic rights for the city’s citizens and to protest China’s controversial extradition bill.
The images could be tough for would-be travellers to shake, even though leader Carrie Lam announced Sept. 4 that the bill would be withdrawn. The city roiled in 12 straight weeks of clashes between anti-government protesters and police, with a complete shut-down of Hong Kong Airport, one of the world’s busiest hubs, on Aug. 12 and 13. This led to the cancellation and rescheduling of hundreds of flights, stranding travellers who found themselves caught in the crossfire.
The Canadian government issued a travel advisory in early August, warning travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution in Hong Kong due to ongoing large-scale demonstrations”, following the lead of other nations like the U.S., Australia, the U.K., Ireland, Singapore and Japan, all of which have issued similar advisories.
The advisory, last updated Aug. 30, still stands.
The Hong Kong Tourism Board (HKTB) confirmed declining numbers, with Michael Lim, Director for Canada, Central & South America telling Travelweek exclusively that preliminary figures show a double-digit drop in visitor arrivals in the second half of July, leading to a fall in total arrivals for the month. Hong Kong’s travel trade, meanwhile, has reported a significant drop in forward bookings in August and September.
Despite the rolling protests, most tourist activities remain operating as normal, a testament to Hong Kong’s world-class tourism infrastructure, says Lim. “Hotel and tourism operators stand ready to provide assistance to minimize possible disruption to travellers in the event that unforeseen circumstances arise.”
He adds that visitors are advised to check DiscoverHongKong.com or HKTB’s Visitor Service Centre and Hotline for up-to-date information.
Meanwhile operations at Hong Kong International Airport are back in full swing, with all flights on schedule. There are, however, a few changes, says Lim: access control measures are being implemented at the terminal buildings to ensure smooth operations of the airport. Visitors are recommended to arrive at the airport earlier than expected for the relevant security checks.
“As the safety and security of travellers in Hong Kong is of the utmost importance, the Hong Kong Tourism Board continues to monitor the current situation closely and provide the latest update on a regular basis,” says Lim.
Travelweek also checked in with several tour operators selling Hong Kong.
Sam Beszelzen, Customer Solutions Specialist at G Adventures, told Travelweek that sales of its tours that visit Hong Kong have been steady and that the company hasn’t had any cancellations. “Our tours that visit Hong Kong spend minimal time in the city and have not been affected. However, we are monitoring the situation closely.”
All of G Adventures’ tours that stop in Hong Kong remain running, with travellers and its Chief Experience Officers (CEOs) being advised to exercise caution and avoid known demonstration areas and large groups.
Diane Molzan, Goway Travel’s General Manager, Asia, says Goway has been fielding more inquiries but hasn’t seen a major impact on bookings. “We’ve certainly seen an increase in questions and concerns from our clients as they prepare for their upcoming departures, but our team in Hong Kong has been very proactive in keeping our team of experts here in Canada armed with the most current information which we share with our travel partners,” said Molzan. “Because Goway specializes in bespoke travel and our expertise lies in being able to modify travel arrangements on the fly, we’ve been able to handle any issues seamlessly. Thus far, cross fingers, we’ve seen little impact on our business to Hong Kong.”
Royal Scenic is also seeing minimal impact. According to President Adeline Piekham-Hseih, Asia sales figures have not shown any decline since demonstrations started in early June.
“Some travellers do have concerns but overall the level of business has been quite steady on our side,” she said. “Travellers who have their flights booked have proceeded with their reservations. We have not seen any significant impact on the volume of cancellations.”
However, Piekham-Hseih thinks that travellers who would normally book Hong Kong for a future travel date would “probably reschedule their trip” due to the ongoing protests.
Intrepid Travel’s Aaron Hocking, Commercial Director in North America and Europe, told Travelweek that earlier this summer sales from Canada on China tours dipped by 25%. To ensure the safety of its customers, Intrepid rerouted tours out of Hong Kong, when necessary. Many tours ending in Hong Kong were rerouted to end in Guangzhou, says Hocking. Whenever reroutes are made, “our team informs all customers in destination, as well as travellers and travel agents with customers departing on an upcoming China tour that’s affected by the reroute.”
Hocking is reminding agents who’ve booked customers on an Intrepid Travel tour to contact its 24-hour sales team for live updates from the company’s on-the-ground operations team “so that you’re assured every upcoming departure is properly handled for customers’ satisfaction and safety.”
Hocking said he’s optimistic that once the protests subside, travellers will quickly return to Hong Kong and to China. “We’ve seen many times – whether in Turkey or Sri Lanka – that one isolated incident doesn’t deter travellers from visiting the country once the issue is settled. We know how powerful responsible travel can be for building up a wounded country and its economy through tourism dollars, and we expect the same positive impacts in Hong Kong once the political unrest has settled.”
Lim and the HKTB are equally hopeful that Hong Kong’s reputation for being a world-class destination remains intact. The protesters had many demands but the extradition bill was the spark that lit the fire. All eyes will be on the city again ahead of China’s National Day on Oct. 1.
“Hong Kong still offers a great variety of experiences for tourists with different purposes of visit,” he says. “The HKTB will rebuild visitors’ interests and desire to visit by showcasing Hong Kong’s local living culture, great dining options, world-class mega events, traditional festivals and great outdoor activities year round.”