In protest clouds, Hong Kong tourists see silver lining
HONG KONG (AP) — 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.
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.
"You think of what you could have made and what you are making at the moment," he said. "That difference, yes, it hurts." 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.
Visiting this month from Taiwan, where he works as a teacher, South African traveler Winand Koch paid the equivalent of just US$65 per night for a room in a comfy hotel that was charging nearly quadruple that rate when he first checked a few months back. Of all his trips to Hong Kong, the two-day stay with his sister, Betro, was "one of the best," he said.
"I've never seen Hong Kong this quiet before," he said. "We didn't have to queue anywhere. We could get in everywhere." Trundling along with suitcases through crowds of demonstrators, hoping to catch a train to the airport a day after protest violence shut down the entire rail network, Koch said he'd enjoyed being "part of history."
"By accident ran into the protest today," he said. "But it was fun, actually, the people were all friendly, helping us through ... they even gave us masks." Aside from the risk of stumbling unawares into street battles and clouds of police tear gas — as some tourists have to their coughing, spluttering dismay — Hong Kong remains a pleasant city. Visitors of either sex needn't think twice about venturing out late at night or while wearing valuables. For the moment, the U.S. State Department still only recommends that visitors exercise extra caution. A similarly worded travel advisory from the British government says, "most visits are trouble free."
Edgar Ruiz said he flew from Mexico "just to see the protests." "I wanted to experience it firsthand. This is big!" he said. "I want to be telling people that I was here when this happened, because it is going to be major in history."
Even some Hong Kong residents are enjoying a respite from the usual floods of visitors, mainly from mainland China. The number of total arrivals has almost doubled over the past decade, from 36 million in 2010 to 65 million last year.
Up on the Peak, Hong Kong-born Isaac Mercado, a 26-year-old banking analyst, was luxuriating in the unusual emptiness. "We used to have a quiet city," he said. Now, with fewer visitors, "I get the chance to explore more a bit on my own, and not be crammed with loads of tourists. So, it's getting more like my home, rather than a tourist city."
Associated Press video journalist Mstyslav Chernov contributed.