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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protests deal blow to Asia's hub airport

Nearby Shenzhen is beneficiary as travelers look to sidestep chaos

Travelers walk through protesters at Hong Kong International Airport on Aug. 13.   © Reuters

GUANGZHOU -- The protests in Hong Kong that virtually shut down the local airport risk causing lasting damage to the city's status as one of Asia's major transportation hubs.

The number of flight reservations to Hong Kong made in Asian countries outside of  mainland China and Taiwan fell 20% on the year between mid-June and early August, data from Forwardkeys shows. Between mid-July and early August, when clashes intensified, bookings dropped off 33%.

In mainland China, travel agencies are increasingly using the international airport in Shenzhen, the Chinese city bordering Hong Kong.

GZL International Travel Service, a major travel agency in Guangdong Province -- where Shenzhen is located -- has directed customers to Shenzhen airport when planning tours. The company is advising against transiting through Hong Kong.

Hong Kong had been the airport of choice for GZL's regularly scheduled tour packages to the U.S. and Europe. But the company says it has been unable to secure enough customers in an increasing number of cases.

"As long as it's not more pricey to switch, I might change my flight to depart from Guangzhou," said a college student studying medicine in Canada. She is currently spending summer vacation in her native Guangdong Province, but she booked a September return ticket from Hong Kong.

"I'm really worried about whether a plane will fly from there without incident," she said.

Hong Kong protesters have filled the city's streets almost every weekend since June in response to a bill that would have allowed the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. The Hong Kong government has shelved the bill, but that has yet to put a stop to the demonstrations.

Between Aug. 9-13, demonstrators staged sit-ins at the Hong Kong airport, forcing the grounding of all flights at one point. Nearly 1,000 flights were canceled over that span.

If demonstrations were to continue at the airport, a third of travelers could potentially shift to Shenzhen's airport, according to an estimate by CITIC Securities, a major Chinese brokerage. Shares of the airport's operator rose after the sit-ins in Hong Kong, and the stock has remained high.

Following an order last week from Hong Kong authorities banning demonstrations at the airport, flight service has returned to normal as of late. But the order is scheduled to expire on Friday, and protesters could potentially block check-in lobbies once again on Saturday.  

Last year, 74.51 million people came through Hong Kong's airport, making it the second busiest in China and the eighth busiest in the world. Shenzhen's airport is currently the sixth most visited in China, but its rank is likely to rise.

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