How safe is it to visit Hong Kong?

Sebastian Liu
Global Threat Analyst, APAC

Dr Adrian Hyzler
Chief Medical Officer

In the latest of our “how safe is it to visit…” series, we shed light on the risks involved when travelling to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong situation report

Overall, Hong Kong is assessed by Healix to be a LOW security risk country owing to the relatively low levels of crime, conflict, and militant activity; there has not been any reported terrorist attack in recent history. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China, and is located off the coast of Guangdong province, China. The territory has a population of approximately 7.5 million, and attracts international businesses owing to its attractive tax regime, pro-business environment, modern infrastructure, and effective rule of law. However, over recent weeks, ongoing unrest in the territory has resulted in significant operational and travel disruption, and has eroded confidence in the territory being a safe and reliable global hub for economic activity.

Large-scale protests have been ongoing since June, triggered by the government’s proposed extradition bill that would have allowed the authorities to extradite suspects to territories that did not have a prior agreement with Hong Kong, including mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau. The government first proposed the bill, formally known as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill 2019, in February this year. It was prompted by the need to extradite a Hong Kong national to Taiwan, after the individual reportedly killed his girlfriend while on holiday in 2018. The first demonstration against the bill took place in late March, with protests then growing in frequency and size. The movement has increasingly been driven by a broader dissatisfaction with the increasing influence of China, and demands for democracy.

Hundreds of thousands were taking part in protests by June, and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the suspension of the bill on 15th June. However, unrest has persisted since, with demonstrators calling for the ‘five major demands’; they include the complete withdrawal of the bill, the release and exoneration of detained protesters, the retraction of charges labelling protests as ‘riots’, and universal suffrage and independent elections. Demonstrators are also calling for the resignation of Lam, but the government and Beijing have so far refused to accede to any of the demands.

Primary risks

Unrest

Healix currently assesses the risk of unrest to be HIGH in Hong Kong. The protests have morphed into an anti-government and pro-democracy movement, with the frequency of demonstrations increasing significantly in recent months. The likelihood of protests taking place in the short term is determined to be LIKELY; rallies have been organised over eleven consecutive weeks, with gatherings occurring on an almost daily basis throughout August. The majority of the initial demonstrations were concentrated around government buildings in the vicinity of the Legislative Council (LegCo) in Central. However, the protesters have changed their targeting patterns; protests are increasingly impacting transport infrastructure, including Hong Kong International Airport [HKG], as well as the Mass Transit Rapid (MTR) network. Protests took place at HKG airport from 9th – 13th August, and resulted in the disruption of hundreds of flights on 12th and 13th August.

Protests have also been held at other areas of the territory, including Kowloon, and border towns in the New Territories. The demonstrators have been known to rally in front of police stations, and flashpoints for unrest in Central include Chater Garden, Tamar Park, and government buildings, such as the Revenue Tower, the LegCo Complex, Office of the Chief Executive, and the Central Government Complex. The decentralised nature of the protests is also making it more difficult to project the next protest location; ‘hit and run’ tactics are increasingly being used, with demonstrators avoiding prolonged confrontation with the police and moving from location to location on foot or via the metro. The likelihood of clashes is elevated during unauthorised protest activity or unplanned deviations. Smaller-scale localised clashes, especially in the vicinity of ‘Lennon Walls’, between protesters and pro-government supporters may also continue to take place.

The police have been employing more aggressive means of dispersal, resorting to the use of bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, sponge grenades, tear gas, and baton charges. The police also confirmed in mid-August that water cannon trucks remain an option to counter ‘large-scale public disturbances’. The police have been known to utilise these non-lethal tools in very close proximity, which can cause fatalities. Although foreign nationals have not been targeted, the risk of incidental violence persists on protest days. Disruption in public areas, including metro stations and shopping malls where protesters are known to seek shelter, have taken place. These locations have been subject to police search activity, with the Police General Orders allowing the security forces to enter and search any premises without a warrant, providing that they have a justifiable reason to believe that a suspect is within the premises.

Natural Disaster

There is a HIGH risk of natural disasters in Hong Kong, predominantly deriving from typhoons. While the rainy season tends to run from April until October annually, the highest risk period for typhoons runs from July to September. Strong intensity typhoons can cause damage and localised flooding, and result in a significant impact to business operations. Based on the Hong Kong warning system, a ‘Typhoon 8’ signal will lead to all public offices closing, while a ‘Typhoon 9’ signal will advise that people stay indoors and away from exposed windows and doors. The scale goes up to a ‘Typhoon 10’ and, between 1946 and 2018, there have only been 15 ‘Typhoon 10’ signals issued, many of which caused major damage and destruction upon landfall.

Levels of urban and disaster planning, along with the robust infrastructure in place in Hong Kong, limit the impact of most natural disasters. The territory has invested in drainage tunnelling systems, particularly in the central business district areas to the north of Hong Kong Island, to reduce the risk of flooding. Moreover, the country has an effective early weather warning system that also reduces the impact of these weather systems.

The risk of earthquakes is lower in Hong Kong, given its distance from the nearest plate boundary. Hong Kong lies within the Eurasian Plate, and is located a distance away from the nearest boundary with the Pacific Plate. Smaller seismic tremors are infrequent and there is no evidence to suggest that there have an increase in the number of tremors in recent years; from 1979 – 2018, there were 75 felt tremors.

Crime

The risk to foreign nationals from crime is considered LOW. Non-violent and opportunistic crimes, notably petty criminality in the form of pickpocketing and snatch theft, are the most common. There is a slightly increased incidence of such crime in areas frequented by foreign nationals, including the Central, Admiralty and Wan Chai districts, particularly around nightlife areas. Areas with high pedestrian traffic, such as the large marketplaces throughout the city and the MTR network, present attractive targets as perpetrators are able to utilise crowds to remain undetected. Other pickpocketing hotspots include tourist attractions, like the Peak Tram and Star Ferry. The impact of crime is assessed to be LOW owing to the highly trained and professional Hong Kong Police Force; the average response time is under five minutes for emergencies and under ten for other incidents.

There is a minimal risk posed by violent and organised crime to foreign nationals. The majority of more serious crime is typically linked to the presence of triads, which are organised criminal gangs. These groups often operate legitimate businesses as a façade for criminal operations, including prostitution and extortion; many of these groups operate within the vicinity of Mong Kok. Their operations typically target locals, as opposed to foreign nationals. The majority of violence is typically inter-triad clashes, and these pose only an incidental risk to those in the vicinity. While there has been a steady decline of the triads since the handover of Hong Kong to China from the United Kingdom in 1997, commentators have stated that there is the potential for triads to become the preferred extra-legal tool of the Chinese government to enforce unpopular polices and repress social movements.

HEALIX HEALTH AND SECURITY RISK MAP

An invaluable visual aid that helps you to better understand the local risk environment of your operations.

Additional risks

The risk of societal and cultural issues is assessed to be LOW. While the society maintains many aspects of conservative traditional values, the populous and government policies are growing increasingly progressive. The government does not recognise same-sex marriages but, as of 19th September 2018, same-sex partners are eligible to apply for a dependant visa to enter Hong Kong. Reports of discrimination based on gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation are uncommon, and same-sex sexual relations are legal. However, accessibility for individuals with disabilities may be an issue due to Hong Kong’s terrain and inadequate facilities, such as a lack of elevators.

Healix advice to travellers visiting Hong Kong

  • Travel to Hong Kong can continue. Flexible itineraries should be maintained owing to likely operational disruption in the short-to-medium term.
  • Developments regarding the ongoing unrest should be closely monitored via social media, local new outlets, the Telegram encrypted messaging platform, and local internet forums, like the LiHKG website. Routes should be planned to bypass the vicinity of planned protest locations, and flashpoints for unrest. It is important to not stop, watch, film or take photographs of protests owing to the incidental risk of violence. Civilians, journalists and bystanders have all been targeted or indirectly impacted previously.
  • In the event of encountering a potentially hostile demonstration, remove yourself from the area and return to a secure accommodation or office location. Black and white clothing have both been associated with protesters and counter-protesters; it’s advisable to refrain from wearing these colours on protest days. Also, limit carrying any items that may give the impression to the authorities that you are involved in protests; this includes masks, hard hats and umbrellas. Refrain from political discussion in public and making statements on social media.
  • If you need to travel through protest locations for essential purposes, the MTR is likely to be a better option as opposed to over-ground transport. However, be aware that MTR services have been disrupted previously and delays may be encountered. Also be aware that, on protest days, these services may be particularly affected. Airport Express services may also be impacted on days when protests are due to be held at Hong Kong International Airport [HKG]. Utilise the ‘Watch Country’ function on Healix’s Travel Oracle app to receive notifications on alerts for potential security incidents and disruption.
  • Maintain a low profile and avoid overt displays of wealth. Leave non-essential valuables in your hotel safe, or avoid bringing them into the country at all. If you are carrying valuables, keep them close on your possession and not in exposed pockets. You should also remain aware of your surroundings, especially when using the public transportation system or in high congestion areas such as tourist attractions.
  • Abide by all official directives issued by the relevant authorities. Take note of warnings issued by the Hong Kong Observatory (HKO) and the type of signal issued. The HKO issues typhoon warnings an average of about six times a year and has a reliable notification and advanced monitoring system. Businesses and facilities are expected to close when a Typhoon Signal 8 or above is issued.

How Healix can help employers with their Duty of Care

The US State Department and Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) continue to maintain a Level 2 travel advisory (on a four-tier scale) for Hong Kong, warning travellers to exercise increased caution when in-country. The Philippines and Singaporean authorities, on 16th August, advised nationals to avoid non-essential travel to the territory owing to the ongoing unrest. Corporate travel insurance policies are known to contain exclusions that negate or void benefits should the relevant authorities recommend against travel to a certain country. Employers should monitor for security developments and stay updated for possible changes to embassy travel advisory levels.

Employers should ensure that employees are aware of the deteriorating security risk trend, and the potential for significant operational and travel disruption to take place at key transport hubs, including Hong Kong International Airport [HKG]. Global travel security providers, like Healix, can support business travellers in-country with dedicated intelligence and operational teams that can monitor on-the-ground developments and provide logistical in-situ support and protective teams. Healix provides many bespoke consultancy services, including site security audits, real-time monitoring services, and destination awareness training, should employees be required to travel to Hong Kong in the short term.

Healthcare in Hong Kong

There are no major health issues in Hong Kong. The issue most likely to be encountered is the greater region’s ongoing problem with air pollution. As with neighbouring China, this is particularly bad during the winter months. A lot of the worst smog is blown over by winds from China, but it is exacerbated by the world’s highest traffic density and a number of coal-burning power plants. People with respiratory illnesses may find they have to take extra precautions when going to the country. This should certainly be discussed with your respiratory physician, prior to planned travel, in order that medication can be optimised and rescue plans determined.

There is however a well established, excellent public healthcare infrastructure in Hong Kong, supported by government funding and managed by the HK Health Authority. Public hospitals are equipped with advanced facilities and well-trained medical staff. In fact, Hong Kong residents have the second highest life expectancy in the world, in large part due to their advanced healthcare system. Hong Kong also boasts some of the most state-of-the-art medical equipment and is one of the leading manufacturers of medical equipment and associated supplies.

Expats require a valid visa and Hong Kong ID card in order to be eligible to receive healthcare under the public healthcare scheme. However, it is often a condition of issuing the visa that the applicant must be covered by the employer for private health insurance. Many of the doctors speak very good English but the nursing / ancillary staff may be less confident in English.

As travellers won’t have a Hong Kong ID card, they will need to pay private hospital rates when using public hospitals – these can be between 5 and 10 times the local rates. Medical payments, where necessary, are sometimes made in cash. The emphasis is on emergency treatment and most hospitals have 24hr emergency care, but there is also a focus on screening programs and preventative health care. Dental care is not covered in the public system.

There is also a highly advanced private healthcare system with 12 hospitals of a very high standard. The hospitals are generally partnered with the UK for international healthcare accreditation. There are about four public hospitals to every private one, but there is an excellent choice of medical professionals available in the private sector with rapid access to clinics, flexible surgery times, complementary health services and comfortable private rooms.

There is excellent pre and post-natal care in Hong Kong and advanced maternity facilities in both private and public sectors. Though there are no “public” midwives in Hong Kong, there are plenty of private midwives who will assist you during and after the birth of your child.

If requiring prescription medication you should take your meds in their original packaging, in your hand luggage and with the original prescription. Always take enough medication to cover you for unforeseen delays in return to your home country. Expats should acquaint themselves early with a primary care physician in order to make the transition to replace their routine meds with local alternatives. Pharmacies are well stocked and the pharmacists very knowledgeable but there may be a language difficulty and therefore, in the absence of a Cantonese speaker, it will not be possible to ask detailed questions about the drugs. Be aware that traditional Chinese medicines are often prescribed both in primary care and secondary care as they are often equivalent to western medicines in popularity.

As with all travellers, up to date routine vaccinations are always recommended. Over 95% of people living in Hong Kong have been vaccinated against tuberculosis, streptococcus bacteria, polio, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. These days the main media focus is on ensuring that you are fully immunised against measles, as outbreaks are occurring in Hong Kong as is the case all over the world. Of course, you should also ensure that all other routine vaccinations are up to date, including DTP (diphtheria-tetanus-polio).

Anyone at increased risk of seasonal influenza virus should remember that they will still be more vulnerable between the months of October and March in Hong Kong, and indeed anywhere in the northern hemisphere, and should make sure they are up to date with the flu vaccine. Always keep an eye on the international news stations for information regarding any disease outbreaks, such as avian flu for example, as you may need to take additional precautions. Those at increased risk of infectious diseases due to work, lifestyle choice or underlying health conditions should also be up to date with additional recommended vaccines – these could include Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, Tuberculosis and Typhoid.

Though there is no risk of malaria or yellow fever in Hong Kong, all travellers should avoid insect or tick bites day and night as there is the risk of mosquito borne illness. Dengue fever, Chikungunya and Japanese encephalitis can be acquired though mainly imported from international travel. Hikers are susceptible to tick bites that carry scrub typhus and spotted fever so care should be taken to cover up when in grasses and vegetation and to check carefully for ticks and tick bites.

As with all countries you should always take care to eat and drink safely when travelling, and make sure that you contact your health practitioner six to eight weeks before travel to ensure that there is sufficient time for your health considerations. Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for most travellers to Hong Kong.

Travellers should ensure that they have private healthcare insurance in order to avail themselves of one of the most advanced private healthcare systems in the world, which also happens to be one of the most expensive. The public system remains of a high standard but the private system has an obvious advantage in access to immediate medical services with private facilities and a choice of doctors, both western and western-trained local doctors.

FIND OUT MORE

Healix International can deploy at short notice to conduct Project Risk Assessments, Site Security Audits, Evacuation Planning, Emergency Response Planning, Threat and Risk Assessments and Training, as well as offer Embedded Security Managers upon request (see Security Consultancy & Bespoke Services). If you are interested in commissioning these services, or would like to request a capability statement for your country of operations, please email us at GSOC@healix.com.

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