Following nearly six months of successfully managing coronavirus, resulting in just eight deaths in a city of 7.4 million, and virtually no local transmission for over two months, Hong Kong has seen a sudden surge of over 200 cases during the last week. Social distancing measures which had been carefully relaxed over May and June have been reimposed and include mandatory mask wearing on public transport, reducing group gatherings from 50 back down to four, and halting dine-in services at cafés and restaurants. Schools have also been closed, as have gyms and karaoke bars. Citizens have been asked to work from home where possible, although hotels and shopping malls remain open.
Also announced is a new requirement for all inbound travellers to test negative for the virus before boarding a flight to Hong Kong. Not that this is likely to affect many travellers, as the Hong Kong border has been shut to everyone except Hong Kong residents since March 23. The current advice is that only residents will be allowed to enter the city until September 18. Residents will then be subject to a 14-day quarantine either at home or a government facility.
What might be a greater concern to visitors than the virus is Hong Kong's thoroughly dystopian political situation. On June 30, the government introduced the draconian National Security Law, which has already seen political parties disband, books with 'subversive' ideas removed from schools and libraries, and made wearing certain T-shirts and singing certain songs illegal. The Foreign Office have updated their advice to travellers to be aware of an increased risk of arbitrary detention.
Government guidelines may change rapidly and without warning; be sure to check the latest FCO advice before booking and/or travelling to any destination.
Where to stay
Hong Kong is a small city, with neighbourhoods rather than regions, and no one district has been more affected by Covid-19 than another. That said, some travellers may want to avoid the most crowded areas, spend more time outdoors or reduce their trips on the busy MTR subway system.
The heart of Hong Kong Island, Central is home to the big banks, designer malls, luxury hotels and piles of hip bars and restaurants. Staying here means you can whiz straight into the middle of town on the Airport Express train and park yourself at a hotel within walking distance of a bunch of top tourist attractions. The Pottinger, Madera Hollywood and Ovolo Central are all within a stone's thrown of Tai Kwun arts and heritage centre (which has loads of outdoor nooks and crannies to explore), Man Mo Temple (one of the oldest temples in Hong Kong, known for its lavish décor and huge coils of beehive incense) and heaps of nightlife (much of which spills out onto the streets for easier social distancing). For airier surrounds, try the Four Seasons, which has a huge outdoor swimming pool and sits on the waterfront overlooking the Star Ferry Central Pier.
Back in the mid-19th century, Admiralty was home to the largest British barracks in the city, spilling down the forested slopes of Victoria Peak to what was once the waterfront. Nowadays, it's an upmarket enclave of high-end shopping malls, expensive office blocks and luxury hotels, and there's been so much land reclamation it now takes 15 minutes to walk to the harbour. The hotels here tend to be more spacious than in other parts of the city; take the Grand Hyatt with its rambling terraces and huge lagoon-shaped swimming pool; or the JW Marriott and Conrad which also have sun-catching outdoor pools. On the doorstep, you've also got the fascinating Asia Society arts hub, Hong Kong Gardens, the Botanic Gardens and the Peak Tram Lower Terminus. Alternatively, you could set off on a vertiginous hike to Victoria Peak on the Central Green Trail catching stupendous views of the city through the greenery.
3. Happy Valley
A giant green oval of grass ringed by pastel-shaded skyscrapers, Happy Valley Racecourse was established by the Hong Kong Jockey Club in 1884 and remains one of the city's centrepieces. While the neighbourhood is best known for the Wednesday night horse racing, its spacious streets, big old banyan trees and playing fields make it a top spot for anyone craving a bit more greenery. There's not a great deal to see in the neighbourhood, but a wander around the old Hong Kong Cemetery provides a version of Hong Kong's colonial history in microcosm (find tombstones from the Opium War, early settlers felled by cholera, naval graves from the First and Second World Wars, and victims of 1962's deadly typhoon Wanda). Food-wise, you've also got the Wong Nei Chung Cooked Food Centre, a kind of indoor version of the traditional street food scene, selling the likes of garlic drenched scallops and crisp sweet and sour pork for next to nothing.
4. Outlying islands
Hong Kong has over 230 outlying islands, most of which are small and uninhabited. But there are a few with regular 40-minute ferry services, where you could easily stay on holiday and experience a completely different side to the city. Hilly little Cheung Chau is home to a pirate's cave, Bronze Age rock carvings, tiny sea temples, a lively harbour and a number of B&B and glamping sites. Car-free Lamma Island exudes more hippy vibes, with its laid back villages, organic cafés, and peaceful beaches – go to open-air restaurant Fu Kee for seafood. Or plant yourself on Lantau (Hong Kong's largest island). It's home to photogenic old fishing villages such as Tai O (stay at the Tai O Heritage Hotel) and our increasingly rare pink dolphins, as well as Hong Kong Disneyland, and the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car which glides across the mountains to 112-foot high Tian Tan Big Buddha and working Buddhist monastery Po Lin.
5. Hung Hom
Go for the urban resort experience at The Kerry Hotel in Hung Hom in East Kowloon. Rooms are bigger than most, there's a terrific outdoor swimming pool, an al fresco bar and superb views of the sparkling Hong Kong skyline. From here, you can cross Victoria Harbour on the lesser-known (and much quieter) Hung Hom to the North Point ferry – I love the ferry's psychedelic orange and purple interiors. You're also well placed to hop on to some of Hong Kong's best hiking trails snaking through Lion Rock Country Park and Unesco-protected Geopark Sai Kung, all rolling mountains, secret waterfalls, bright white beaches and beautiful birdlife.
Where should you avoid for now?
Heaving with noisy street markets, cool indy shops and old-school restaurants, Mongkok, on Kowloon side, is one of my favourite districts – but it's also one of the most densely packed neighbourhoods anywhere in the world. Even though door handles tend to be sanitised every hour and there are temperature checks to enter shops and malls, the crowds here are hard to escape and for that reason only this is not a neighbourhood for the nervous.
2. Wan Chai
Like Mongkok, Wan Chai is one one Hong Kong's best but busiest neighbourhoods, packed with large office blocks, dozens of malls, miles of street markets, and hundreds of fantastic places to eat. Unfortunately, it's also the site of a small but recent outbreak of cases, centred around a couple of restaurants.
3. Wong Tai Sin
While coronavirus cases have been fairly even spread across the city, Wong Tai Sin, in the New Territories, has seen a small new burst of infections. Even though the following attractions have plenty of outdoor space, it might be best to dodge Sik Sik Yeun Wong Tai Sin Temple (ironically, dedicated to the god of healing), Chi Lin Nunnery and neighbouring Nan Lian Gardens more as a way to avoid passing through the MTR subway system.