Protesters in Hong Kong have begun a three-day sit-in at the city’s international airport – a day after the US warned citizens to “exercise increased caution” when travelling there.
Several other nations – including Australia, the UK, Ireland, Singapore and Japan – have also issued heightened travel advisories over what the US called “confrontational” protests in the Chinese territory.
This isn’t the first time the airport has become a protest site: On 26 July, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and airline staff held a sit-in there with the aim of reaching tourists and raising awareness of the protests’ goals.
Then on 5 August, more than 200 flights were cancelled amid a city-wide strike.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s most visited cities, but experts say the disruption is hurting its hospitality sector.
So how much have the protests affected tourism?
Hong Kong protests: All the context you need
‘Significant fall-off in bookings’
For nine weeks now, anti-government rallies have frequently ended in violent clashes with police – and some would-be visitors are concerned the city may be more dangerous than before. Google Trends data shows a marked increase for the search term “Hong Kong safe” since the end of July, with the majority of searches coming from Europe and other parts of Asia.
According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, preliminary figures have shown a “double-digit decline” in the number of visitor arrivals in the second half of July.
“The travel trade has reported that the number of forward bookings in August and September has [also] dropped significantly,” a spokesperson told the BBC.
Flight bookings, too, have taken a hit.
Hong Kong flagship carrier Cathay Pacific declined to give any figures, but said that it was “seeing the impact of local political unrest”.
“This has led to a significant fall-off in future bookings over the next few months, particularly for inbound travel,” John Slosar, Cathay Pacific Group Chairman, said in a statement.
International hotel chain the Langham Hospitality Group said “certain segments” at its Hong Kong hotels had seen a “slowdown”.
However, a spokesperson added that the protests would “affect sentiment and retail businesses, but in the longer term will not pose a threat to Hong Kong’s economy and global standing as one of the top travel destinations of the world”.
Tourists in the territory
The tourism industry is one of the major pillars of Hong Kong’s economy, contributing around 5% of the city’s GDP.
A large majority of Hong Kong’s visitors come from mainland China. In January to June 2019 alone, mainlanders made 27 million visits to the territory.
Visitor arrivals to Hong Kong
Data from January – June 2019
Protesters in Hong Kong are well aware of this.
Earlier in July, they attempted to spread their pro-democracy message to mainland tourists, handing out leaflets in the busy shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui.
Information is strictly censored in China, and many state-media outlets have painted a picture of protesters “destroying” the city – a tactic aimed at fanning public anger against the demonstrators.
According to news outlet Radio Free Asia (RFA), a travel agency in Shenzhen said many people in China had recently cancelled their trips to Hong Kong.
“One of my guests said he was afraid that it would be unsafe,” the unnamed agency told RFA.
And others agreed.
“How are there still people willing to travel to Hong Kong?” asked one commenter on the Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo. “Do they not read the news? Their personal safety will be at risk.”
“I used to travel to Hong Kong for shopping, I’d rather go to Japan or Korea now,” another added.
According to the South China Morning Post, which is based in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association (HKRMA) said most of its 8,000 member shops had recorded a drop in revenue.
The HKRMA said it would revise its sales forecast to a “double digit decline” if protests continued. It had earlier forecasted a year of single-digit growth.
Swiss watchmaker Swatch told Reuters news agency that political turbulence had contributed to a “double-digit decline in sales in Hong Kong”, one of its most important global markets.
And Angela Cheng, an economist at CMB International Capital Corporation Limited said retail sales in 2019 were forecast to drop by as much as 10%.
“Hong Kong’s retail industry will be affected both internally and externally”, she told Reuters.