The Hong Kong outlook – can we expect a further escalation in action or will there be a loss of momentum?

Last month, The Blue Swan Daily highlighted research that showed how much of an impact the wave of demonstrations against the controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong were having on air bookings to the territory. At that time the answer was limited, but with Hong Kong International airport forced to suspend flights this week, there has now been a direct impact on the industry.

Now Cathay Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg has resigned after the airline was censured by Beijing because some staff had supported pro-democracy protests in the city. The airline said he was leaving because his staff’s support for the demonstrations ‘called into question’ the company’s commitment to safety and security. Fellow executive Paul Loo, the airline’s chief customer and commercial officer, has also left the company.

What started as a protest against an extradition bill has ultimately morphed into a fundamental challenge to the way Hong Kong is governed and the role of the Chinese government in the city’s affairs and updated research from market intelligence specialist ForwardKeys suggests the recent wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that culminated in the closure of the airport on 12-Aug-2019, is deterring people from making plans to visit the city.

“There is now clear evidence that the protests have reversed a positive travel trend in which bookings for the first six and a half months of the year were up 6.6% on 2018,” says the Spanish company.

Its analysis of flight bookings for the eight-week period from 16-Jun-2019 to 09-Aug-2019 shows flight bookings to Hong Kong from Asian markets have fallen by -20.2% on the equivalent period last year. In the first fortnight (16-Jun – 29-Jun), bookings fell -9.0% and in the second (30-Jun – 13-Jul), just -2.2% and it had appeared the demonstrations were having a short-term impact on short-haul travel. However, in the following 27 days (14-Jul – -09-Aug), it identifies a dramatic drop in bookings by a third (-33.4%).

CHART – The ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong are having an increasing impact on air bookings being made for travel from Asian markets, excluding China and TaiwanSource: ForwardKeys

The findings are profound and highlight the impact of the demonstrations, but to properly understand the impact this is having on travel into Hong Kong you also need to also be able to see flows from mainland China and Taiwan, which accounted for four in five tourism arrivals last year.

As the situation continues to be very fluid, leading medical and travel security assistance company, International SOS, warns that protest activity is likely to continue in the coming weeks with scope, scale and location of the rallies becoming more unpredictable. In an insight paper entitled ‘Evolution of protests in the Hong Kong SAR’ it warns that demonstrations “will continue in the short term, as participants seek to exert further pressure on the Hong Kong government,” while various other groups are “capitalising on the tensions to call for change on local political and socio-economic issues”.

A recent increase in violence by a small faction of hardline activists fits with the general trend that sees such an escalation towards the end of protests, when a more determined cohort of participants refuses to disperse, says the report, but International SOS predicts the majority of demonstrations will remain largely non-violent.

The suspension of a controversial bill enabling extraditions to mainland China has failed to halt the momentum of related protests in Hong Kong and the scope and scale of the rallies has spread beyond Hong Kong Island to include the New Territories and Kowloon, with turnout ranging from tens to hundreds of thousands.

International SOS highlights that historically, protests in Hong Kong since 1997 have failed to maintain a high tempo over a sustained period, despite the local government refusing to yield to demonstrators’ demands. The three-month long Occupy Movement in 2014 ended with the police peacefully clearing the three occupied protest sites and no concessions on political reform having been won. It suggests that fatigue, official response from authorities and an increase in hardline tactics could all contribute to a loss in momentum.

“While an eventual loss of momentum and potential compromise are both plausible scenarios, further escalation is likely in the next three months,” warns International SOS and it advises Security managers to “ensure local and inbound staff are fully briefed on the associated risks” and that while it believes travel can continue, managers “should remain responsive to rapid changes in the security environment and ensure business continuity plans are up-to-date”.

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