By Lilit Marcus, CNN
Hong Kong’s residents are among the most travel-starved people in the world. As other cities throughout Asia and the Pacific loosen travel restrictions and emerge from lockdowns, any Hong Konger who wants to leave the city is subject to a mandatory quarantine of up to 21 days upon their return.
The result? Desperation. Or, if you work in the travel industry, a chance to innovate.
And that’s how I ended up spending six hours of a sunny, beautiful Saturday on board a Hong Kong bus that intentionally got stuck in traffic.
Finding the new amid the old
“Honestly, Hong Kong tourism is very boring,” says Frankie Chow, founder of Ulu Travel, which organized the bus trip. “I didn’t want to do the same old thing. I want to do something interesting.”
Hong Kong has been in a curious position during the pandemic. The city of about 7.5 million people has recorded just 213 coronavirus deaths, thanks in large part to early, swift lockdowns.
But what looked like a good idea at the beginning has led to boredom, frustration and a flood of expats giving up on the city for good.
The financial hub remains closed to nearly all visitors, and even local residents who are fully vaccinated face expensive hotel quarantines if they leave the city and come back.
Although domestic travel is open and thriving in mainland China, Hong Kong has not been included in that plan, leaving residents cut off in their congested city. Other places in the region, like Singapore, South Korea and Australia, are pivoting to a “living with the disease” mindset. But Hong Kong remains a walled fortress.
Chow, a Hong Kong native, says that most locals looking for a quick weekend escape usually head to one of the archipelago’s outer islands or more rural areas along the mainland border for hiking, swimming and eating seafood. But after more than 18 months of life inside this bubble, he knew he would have to get creative.
For one Ulu employee, Kenneth Kong, innovation came in the form of a friend’s social media post. Kong explains that his friend, who is a firefighter, was so stressed out that he was having trouble sleeping — except, for some reason, on the bus home from work.
That spurred Kong to think up a bus tour idea. His main goals were to create the longest bus route in the city, and to get people to actually pay for the privilege of sleeping on a public bus.
A bus to nowhere goes somewhere
On Saturday, October 16, 45 Hong Kongers met at a restaurant in the far northern neighborhood of Tsuen Wan to choose from one of three set lunches designed to be heavy and encourage them to slip into food comas.
From there, they stepped onto a public Hong Kong double-decker bus that had been decorated in Ulu-branded signage.
Riders had been able to choose from two tiers of tickets — the bottom level was for socializing and the upper for people who wanted to be quiet and (try to) snooze.
Although the alleged purpose of the bus tour was for everyone to get some much-needed rest, that wasn’t easy. During the six-ish-hour itinerary, there were multiple stops — for toilet breaks, then for photo ops.
The group spent 45 minutes at a beauty spot near the Hong Kong container port, then another 45 at a popular vantage point near the airport where riders could watch planes take off with the scenery of the Hong Kong-Macao-Zhuhai Bridge and the South China Sea at dusk as backdrops.
Taken out of context, this could have looked like a regular group bus tour anywhere else in the world. And that was exactly the point.
“The travel industry just wants to wait for the border to reopen,” says Kong. “They’ve been waiting for two damn years.”
While Hong Kong’s residents keep hoping for a tourism restart, the team at Ulu is trying to get them to fall in love with their hometown — or, at least, be able to relax for an afternoon.
And with tickets in the downstairs section going for $100 HKD (about $13 US), regular working class Hong Kongers could afford to try out this unconventional experience.
Ulu’s other local offerings include a behind-the-scenes tour of Chep Lak Kok Airport led by crew members, an LGBT-focused tour and a special bus tour that allows people to bring their dogs.
By the end of the day, I was tired but satisfied, feeling like I would after a long meal. By that metric alone, the bus trip was a success.
There was one thing I didn’t do, though: sleep.
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