Why are Hong Kong protesters at the airport?

Hong Kong airport — one of the busiest and most important commercial hubs in Asia — has emerged as a key protest target, as anti-government demonstrators seek to capture the world’s attention.

The airport is a source of pride in the city, with its sleek, glass-fronted terminal, world-renowned efficiency and smooth transport links. Since it opened 20 years ago, the airport has become a symbol of modern Hong Kong, with almost 73 million passengers passing though it annually.

It also handles 1,100 passenger and cargo flights daily, with services between the city and about 200 international destinations.

Even a few months ago, recent scenes of passengers confronted by thousands of protesters occupying the arrivals and departure halls, blocking travelers from reaching their flights and disrupting airport operations, would have been unthinkable.

But in Hong Kong’s current political climate — the protests have become increasingly violent since they began in early June — the airport has become fair game.

So why are protesters targeting the airport?

Small, peaceful gatherings at the arrivals halls have been ongoing for several weeks now. Demonstrators — protesting against a now-shelved extradition bill to mainland China, aggressive police actions, mob attacks and calls for wider democratic reforms — have viewed the international hub as a way to communicate their struggle to a global audience.

At the weekend, leaflets in Chinese, English, French, Korean, Japanese and other languages were handed out to arriving international visitors, explaining the causes of the unrest — as protesters see it — that have broken out in Hong Kong over the past three months.

Tear gas, rubber bullets and street battles with police have become a protest mainstay in recent weeks, and many protesters see the airport as a safe space, observing that riot police would be unlikely to clear them out if travelers were there.

One young protester, who did not want to be named, told CNN that “protesting in the airport is safer than the streets because we think they (authorities) may take care of tourists.”

As well as getting their message to a wider audience, the airport is a major economic lever.

It contributes 5% to Hong Kong’s GDP, directly and indirectly, said Frank Chan, Hong Kong’s transport secretary, in May.

On Monday and Tuesday, the city’s airport authority canceled and delayed hundreds of flights as protesters blocked the departures hall, leading to lost revenue for both airlines and travelers.

“This is a disaster for Hong Kong that will cost tens of millions of dollars,” said Geoffrey Thomas, editor in chief and managing director of AirlineRatings.com, a website that monitors airlines.

Blocking the airport also has ramifications for businesses. Prior to this week’s disruptions, companies were already worried that the protests would tarnish Hong Kong’s image as a global financial hub and a favored gateway to China, said Davide De Rosa, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

Now that demonstrations appear to be blocking operations at the airport, “this particular action is having [an] echo all over the world,” De Rosa said.

“It just simply doesn’t look good … It’s a very worrying situation for the businesses, or for the companies doing business in Hong Kong, and then for Hong Kong itself,” he told CNN on Tuesday.

A spacious, shiny beacon for business

Opened in 1998 — a year after Hong Kong was handed back to China by the British — on the reclaimed island of Chek Lap Kok, the newly built airport replaced the famous Kai Tak facility which was regarded as one of the most difficult airports in the world for pilots to fly in and out of.

The “new” airport was designed by award-winning architect Norman Foster and was built to be a modern hub, attracting businesspeople and travelers keen to do business in the city.

It’s frequently named one of the top five airports in the world, is a repeat winner of Skytrax’s World’s Best Airport Dining award, and has been the world’s largest cargo airport for eight years in a row.

That image was shattered Monday and Tuesday as travelers and businesspeople arriving at the airport were faced with canceled flights, thousands of protesters dressed in black, and little to no information about rescheduling flights. Many travelers slept on the floor overnight.

Those two days marked an escalation in the intensity of the airport protests, prompted by clashes between police and demonstrations in several locations across the city over the weekend.

Officers in riot gear had pursued protesters into subway stations, where they were recorded firing tear gas in enclosed environments and at close range. One police officer also suffered partial burns to his leg after being hit by a petrol bomb. One female protester was seen being treated by paramedics after she was hit in the face by a beanbag round.

On Tuesday, as passengers remained stranded inside the airport, riot police and protesters clashed outside the terminal. The crowd had detained a man accused of being an undercover police officer for several hours, and paramedics were struggling to reach him. Video also showed one officer drawing his side arm after being isolated and attacked by protesters.

While many travelers have expressed sympathy for the protesters, others said the demonstrations are taking their toll.

“This is ridiculous,” one woman from the UK who was traveling with a child told CNN on Monday. “You’re going to stop people from coming into the country.”

CNN’s James Griffiths, Ben Westcott, Jessie Yeung, Julia Hollingsworth and Joshua Berlinger contributed to reporting.