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story.lead_photo.caption Stranded travelers pass the time at the Hong Kong International Airport’s check-in counters on Monday.

Mass flight cancellations at Hong Kong's airport disrupted one of the world's busiest air-transport hubs on Monday, causing chaos for tourists and business travelers and playing havoc with global airlines' flight schedules-- a fresh escalation of the city's protest movement that threatens the Asian city's business-friendly image.

Thousands of supporters of the largely leaderless pro-democracy protest movement descended on the terminal in an effort to get the message out to the world about their struggle and the harsh tactics used by police. Many wore eyepatches to show their solidarity with a female protester who reportedly was hit in the eye by a projectile fired by police.

The protests, which have seen both sides adopt increasingly extreme tactics, had until Monday been mostly confined to neighborhoods across the former British colony. But the airport protest, which caused the cancellation of more than 150 flights and stranded thousands of travelers, was a rare case of the movement having a direct impact on business travel and tourism -- mainstays of the Asian business center's economy.

Analysts said it could make foreign investors think twice about setting up shop in Hong Kong, which has long prided itself as being Asia's leading business city with convenient air links for executives traveling across the region.

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"The level of political risk associated with operating in Hong Kong is unprecedentedly high and the situation isn't simply a flash in the pan," said Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst at global risk consultancy Veritas Maplecroft.

"Those investors that haven't already done so are beginning to question the utility of being based in the territory. Others have already begun the search for more politically stable hubs in the Asia-Pacific," he said.

Adding to the protesters' anger, Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways told employees in a memo that the carrier has a "zero tolerance" for employees joining "illegal protests" and warned disciplinary consequences could include being fired.

A Cathay Pacific pilot was charged with rioting and two ground staff fired for misconduct, the airline said by email Monday. The moves came after the Chinese government warned Cathay Pacific, one of Hong Kong's best-known international brands, to bar its staff from participating in the protests -- an escalation into the territory's business affairs.

Airline CEO Rupert Hogg said in a previous memo Saturday that Cathay Pacific must comply with the civil aviation authority's regulations.

"Though people may share different views, it is essential that we all respect each other, our customers and members of the public," he wrote. "We are aware that this has been, and continues to be, a very challenging time for many of us who live in Hong Kong and call this incredible city home."

The airline is not the only company that has become entangled in Hong Kong's political tumult.

Luxury fashion brands Givenchy, Versace and Coach have apologized after Chinese social media users lambasted the companies for selling T-shirts which listed Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as their own countries. Officially Hong Kong and Macao are classified as "special administrative regions" with a greater degree of autonomy than mainland Chinese provinces. Taiwan, meanwhile, split from the mainland during a civil war in 1949, though the Communist Party claims the island as part of its territory and maintains that reunification is inevitable.

Coach said in a statement Monday that "major mistakes" were discovered in the design of some of its T-shirts.

"We are deeply sorry for the damage caused to our consumers' feelings," Coach said.

Likewise, Versace said Sunday that their "incorrect design" linked some cities with incorrect country names. It said the T-shirts with this design were removed from all official sales channels and destroyed on July 24. "We love China and resolutely respect the national sovereignty of Chinese territory," the brand said.

CoCo Fresh Tea and Juice, a Taiwanese bubble tea franchise, and Pop Mart, a Chinese lifestyle brand, both apologized after individuals affiliated with their companies expressed support for Hong Kong protesters.

Hong Kong officials warned that Monday's protest risked hurting the city's reputation as a travel and transport center.

"There is a serious impact on the operation of the airport," said Hong' Kong's second-highest ranking government official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung. "We are an international airport hub and it is also the trunk of Hong Kong's business."

There were already signs business travelers were looking elsewhere.

"Some customers have shown a decline in travel bookings to Hong Kong in June and July, as a number of countries have issued safety advisories urging travelers to exercise caution," said Julian Walker, a spokesman for travel management platform CWT, formerly known as Carlson Wagonlit.

It was too early to know how Monday's shutdown had affected bookings, he said.

The airport handled 75.3 million passengers in 2018, making it the world's second-busiest international airport after Dubai, according to preliminary data from Airports Council International.

It's also the world's busiest air cargo hub, driven partly by demand from wealthy countries for Asian exports. More than five million metric tons of air freight passed through the airport last year, the council said.

Photo by The New York Times/LAM YIK FEI
Thousands of people fill Hong Kong International Airport on Monday in a protest against the tactics used recently by police in their efforts to disperse pro-democracy demonstrations. Monday’s protest forced the cancellation of more than 150 flights, leaving thousands of travelers stranded.

A Section on 08/13/2019

Print Headline: Hong Kong protest hits airport

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