How travelers can stay safe during times of civil unrest

Hong Kong protests
A Hong Kong airport security officer checks a traveler’s flight information Wednesday after flights resumed following two days of disruptions and protests.
(Vincent Thian / Associated Press)

Hong Kong’s airport sit-in went from peaceful to chaotic this week, shutting down the main airport for two days and leaving travelers stranded amid a standoff between police and pro-democracy protesters. The airport reopened Wednesday.

Tourists can’t always anticipate what’s going to happen when they’re on the road, but they can be aware of what steps to take when something unexpected does happen.

“You don’t want to lose your calm, and you don’t want to distract yourself,” says Michael Brein, who describes himself as a travel psychologist.


In Hong Kong or other airport scenarios, he recommends retreating to a safe place, such as spots behind ticket counters and seats along the walls that keep you away from the action.

Avishek Adhikari, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA, said situations such as the protest in Hong Kong can cause people to panic because they don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“It’s damaging to ruminate over the problem,” Adhikari said. “If you’re scared, try to engage in other activities that take your mind off the scene.”

He recommends reaching out to friends and family over the phone or on the ground. Also, breathing exercises can help maintain a clear head so you scan your surroundings for possible threats.

Mostly, you don’t want to be mistaken for a protester or agitator.

The U.S. State Department and Brein recommend keeping a low profile by minimizing contact with locals and activities in general. Eye contact and physical contact can often draw attention to yourself, he says.

“You want to increase your degree of freedom,” Brein says. “Which means you want to increase distance both psychologically and physically so that you have more options to escape a situation.”


Travel insurance and safety service provider World Nomads recommends these safety steps:

— try to break free and leave the area;

— if you can, leave the scene quickly, but don’t run (it will draw attention to you); and

— if you are caught in a crowd, stay clear of shops with glass fronts and stay with the flow. (Check out the company’s other safety tips.)

The State Department had issued a Level 2 (out of 5) travel advisory for Hong Kong. The agency recommends telling Americans in areas of unrest to stay on top of local news, contact the embassy for instructions and information, keep in touch with your airline about upcoming flights, and sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive alerts and make it easier for U.S. officials to locate you in case of an emergency.

Protesters had gathered at the airport to protest against a now-suspended extradition bill and call for universal suffrage, and to raise awareness among international visitors to Hong Kong about their claims of police brutality, an earlier L.A. Times story said.