Here's what I saw on the news this summer: Sporadic peaceful demonstrations against an extradition law began drawing large crowds in Hong Kong. Police became increasingly forceful in breaking up the protests. Demonstrators occupied and shut down the airport for two days. The government capitulated and withdrew the extradition law, but by that time, protestors had crowdsourced four additional demands.
Trust and dialogue eroded. Police appeared to more quickly fire water cannons and shoot rubber bullets and tear gas. Some protestors began lobbing Molotov cocktails.
It seemed a descent into violence in a destination I have been visiting for 35 years, one I feel close to and where I have friends and colleagues. I decided to see for myself what was going on.
I arrived about 10 days ago at the Peninsula. The lobby seemed unusually quiet at 5 p.m., and after checking in, I met its director of communications, Cecilia Lui, at the hotel's beautiful Philippe Starck-designed bar, Felix. Although the lobby had seemed eerily still, I was happy to see that the bar was filling nicely when I left at 6:45 to meet friends, the food critic Chris Dwyer and hospitality sustainability consultant Patricia Gallardo Dwyer, at the Japanese restaurant Haku.
The restaurant also filled as we dined on food that was, literally, the most beautiful I've ever eaten. The word "plating" doesn't do justice to the imaginative presentation of seafood from Japan, artfully arranged with greens and tiny edible flowers from Hong Kong's New Territories. I initially almost felt guilty destroying the arrangements, but that quickly passed once I tasted the food.
I confess to some cognitive dissonance at that point. My preconceptions that something might be off in Hong Kong seemed reinforced by the shortest immigration line I've ever seen at the airport and the quiet of the Peninsula's lobby, but things couldn't have been more relaxed and, well, normal, at Felix and Haku.
I asked Chris and Pat about their impressions as residents.
"Nothing's different in our lives, day-to-day," Chris said.
Pat agreed, saying she was upset when she found out that a wellness conference that typically was held in Hong Kong had been relocated to Singapore over concerns about the demonstrations.
"There was really no reason to move it," she said.
It's important to note that I was there on weekdays, and the demonstrations typically have occurred on weekends, when students are out of school and people are off work. I spent time on both Hong Kong Island and in Kowloon, and the only place I sensed that anything was different was in the Peninsula. The lobby came alive for its traditional afternoon tea, but more than once, I was the only guest there. And although the buffet breakfast was fully stocked, only about five tables were occupied at 8:15 a.m.
I've always felt that, short of revolution or epidemic, there are few better times to go to a destination than when the ignorant or meek are too frightened to visit. Lines are short, service is attentive and, perhaps, prices have dropped.
I took advantage of several of the Peninsula's offerings, including a ride on its yacht into Hong Kong Harbor to watch the nightly laser show light up the skyline. This outing typically requires a minimum of six people, but the hotel was gracious in providing it even though I was by myself.
Horst Schulze, founder of Ritz-Carlton and Capella hotels, once told me that after 9/11, he was surprised to see an empty vase where there typically had been an extravagant floral display in one of his hotels. He asked why, and was told occupancy was only 70%.
"I asked if they were trying for 50," Schulze recalled.
The Peninsula gets it. Its ornate flower displays were fresh, the registration desk fully staffed at 5 a.m., when I checked out. I had a shirt pressed in the middle of the night and room service at 4 a.m. If the Peninsula wasn't full, it was no reflection on the continuing quality at the property.
We had previously reported that hotel occupancy had dropped dramatically, but to get a better handle on how tourism interests were being affected by the protests, I had scheduled some appointments with industry professionals.
Given all the places one can go to sightsee or hold a conference, I had thought it would be difficult to come up with a persuasive argument that now was a good time to come to Hong Kong. But after speaking with Kenneth Wong, the Hong Kong Tourism Board's general manager for cruise and meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions, I concede I was wrong. To attract people to Hong Kong requires only candor, empathy, attentiveness to logistics and the simple truth that it's likely one can escape any impact from demonstrations.
The sites of political protests are well-publicized in advance, so they are easily avoided, Wong said. And to enter the airport now requires a boarding pass or printed itinerary, so there have been no recurrences of the shutdown there (though it's recommended that flyers arrive a bit earlier than usual).
I asked if he recommended that groups plan to stay only Monday through Friday. He said no. The board suggests weekend visits to the islands of Lantau or Lamma, or Macau or even China. And Wong's staff works with visitors on contingency plans should something come up that would potentially disrupt a conference.
The board posts regular updates on DiscoverHongKong.com, and Wong's staff is proactive in keeping conference planners informed about any developments.
As a result, the board has been able to reassure and retain nervous international groups with thousands of attendees.
"I would not say the momentum is as strong as before," Wong said, referencing the fact that business had been up 4% year-over-year through June, "but we still managed to maintain some momentum."
Stuart Bailey is chairman of the Hong Kong Exhibitions & Convention Industry Association, comprising 116 venues or businesses servicing exhibitions and conventions. Before the protests began, he was concerned about the impact of the U.S.-China trade war, but with the addition of the demonstrations, he faced "a perfect storm."
"What you're not seeing, because it's not newsworthy, is people going about their daily lives," Bailey said. "People go to school, to work, to shops. Buses and trains run, and except for the weekend protests, everything is normal. You can quite easily stay away from areas that might be affected by protests. That's our messaging, and we've seen very little disruption in terms of trade exhibitions."
Perhaps most telling, exhibitions aimed at Hong Kongers, who know the local situation better than anyone, have been strong. The Hong Kong Book Fair attracted 980,000 people over five days, and the Food Expo drew 450,000.
Potential visitors are rightfully concerned about safety, Bailey acknowledged.
"I had a conversation with somebody who was coming from London, and he asked, 'Is it safe?' So I read him the travel advisory on Hong Kong issued by the U.K. and then the U.S. advisory for people going to London. If you're London-based, you're probably safer coming to Hong Kong than you are staying at home. That resonated."
Jeff Bent, managing director at Worldwide Cruise Terminals, which operates Hong Kong's Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, said that cruising has, for the most part, been unaffected by the protests. He did offer some advice to travel advisors sending people to Hong Kong:
"The protests have been rotating from district to district, but they tend to concentrate in and around government facilities," he said. "The main government offices in Admiralty are the site of a lot of protests, as are some government buildings in Central. The typical protest march route goes from Causeway Bay to Central, so I'd say avoid hotels with street entrances along there because, with thousands of people walking by, it'll just be harder to come in and out. But it's worth noting there hasn't been any violence against bystanders."
I'm writing this as another weekend approaches, and I can't know whether there will be an escalation in tensions between when I submit this and when it's published. But I suspect that even if there is, visitors following the advice offered above will not be impacted any more than visitors to Times Square in midtown Manhattan were impacted during the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations downtown.
Around the world, increased awareness has become the norm. That seems a small consideration when the reward is to visit one of the most fascinating cities on Earth at bargain rates and without crowds.
UPDATE: The Hong Kong protests on Oct. 1, which coincided with mainland China's celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, appear to have been more widespread and violent than previous demonstrations. Transportation was disrupted to a greater extent, and one protester was shot by police with a live round. It is unclear whether this will significantly alter the general pattern of protests which, as noted above, have been largely confined to weekends and certain areas near government buildings. We will add additional updates as the situation clarifies. -- A.W.