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By Darren Winningham | Monday, December 9, 2019

Many tourists may have Victoria Peak, Disneyland or Lantau Island on their Hong Kong itineraries, but in a sign of the changing times, one tour company has added something new: protest tours.

Hong Kong Free Tour, which takes visitors to see “the real Hong Kong”, including its poorer districts, has seen an opportunity at a time when anti-government unrest has hit the tourism industry hard.

“Both locals and international travellers are welcome to join,” reads the online description for the new tours. “Please note that you are responsible for your own safety when you join this tour.”

I ventured into the danger zone on Saturday on my day off.

To be honest I stumbled it across it quite accidently. I exited Tin Hau MTR station just two stops from where I was staying at Wan chai as I wanted to see Victoria Park. There were many people dressed in yellow shirts with “MEDIA” sprawled across their high-vis vests.

As I exited there were several others with bright yellow shirts with “Hong Kong Free Tours” standing out in the sea of people dressed in black, some with gas masks dangling from their necks. It seemed they were prepared for battle.

I researched the group on my phone. Their web page had the following information:

Starting Time & Meeting Point: Outside of Exit A1 of Tin Hau MTR Station
Ending Time & Point: 4pm (or later) – Central district
Find Us: Find yellow T-shirt/jacket with “The Hong Kong Free Tours”
Participants: Both Hong Konger & International Travelers are welcome to join
What to Wear/Bring: There is no dress code, but you may wear black outfit with mask if
you want to fit in with the environment of this special Walking Tour.
Please make sure you bring enough water and wear comfortable shoes
Duration: Around 2 hours

I walked into Victoria Park and found a large gathering of protestors. One identified himself as Johnson. He explained to me that the purpose of the gathering was to support the people who had been arrested in recent protests. He told me the police had banned the rally and it was not safe – well it was safe at this point – but anything may occur.

I tagged along behind the “Free Tour Group”. There were police vans with lights on congregating at this point. The tour host said, “You might have heard a lot of things in the news, but our purpose is to walk and judge where we are in the movement.”

To help the group understand, he explained how the protests were triggered by the unpopular extradition bill which many feared would lead to fugitives being sent to mainland China, among other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has no exchange arrangement.

The British tourist in the group was William – 32 years of age from Liverpool. He told me said he was curious about the protests, but did not know where to find them, or even when they would take place. “The foreign office advised UK citizens not to get involved, but I wanted to see for myself what is going on here,” William said.

Prior to leaving the “Free Hong Kong Tour” guide warned that there was a chance of a confrontation. He said to the group that if the police raised a black flag it was a sign that they were about to use tear gas to disperse the crowd.

He explained that being exposed to tear gas is not a pleasant experience.

At this point even though there was no violence as I decided it was probably best to go back to Wan chai. Prior to leaving he told his group to be careful on Sunday night. His information was that there would be some serious violence and clashes planned.

Whilst I am not in favour of violence. I can see both sides. The sacrifice the protestors are making to attempt to make a point. But I feel for the police and authorities that are commissioned to protect property and maintain order. They have families too – they should be allowed to go home safe and uninjured to their families.

I went to Temple Street Markets one night during the week. Normally a hive of activity – wonderful markets – wonderful street food. It was dead – hardly anyone around – the markets bare – the street food vendors struggling to even fill their chairs.

I went to a stall where I always buy items for the Beagle Club of Queensland each time I come across. My great friend “Emily” was there she smiled, welcomed me and gave me a big hug. I bought some items from her – normally we haggle on price and then sometimes we flip a coin for HK$50 (it has become a tradition).

On this occasion she spoke with great sorrow in her voice, “It is difficult Mr Darren. Whilst we want to have a great Hong Kong, it is damaging us. People do not come. My takings here are less than 30% of what I would normally make per week. Everyone is struggling. Shops are closing. People losing their jobs”.

There was no haggling – no flipping of the coin – I paid her the price she asked and wished her well. She has a family to support – 2 children and a husband who works 10 to 11 hours per day.

The fear is the unknown future – “Mr Darren – tell your friends to come and support us – there is only limited protests – we need people to come and make Hong Kong great again”.

It is a sad situation in Hong Kong. Reports of sales being down 25% in retail stores – lack of tourists in hotels and a general downturn in the economy as people avoid the city. It is a wonderful place to visit – I love it as I find new places to eat, shop and explore each time I come.

I suppose the hidden costs of these riots are the people that have lost their jobs as shops have closed and are struggling to make ends meet.

Finally, I came, I saw and I spent plenty of Hong Kong dollars. I did my part for the economy.

I think that the best advice I can provide is taken straight from the Australian Government web site – “Smart Traveller” – “Be aware. If there are signs of disorder, move away quickly to a safe place. Avoid demonstrations and monitor local media”.

I survived and plan to come back soon – hopefully some others will too

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