HONG KONG — Almost two years into the coronavirus pandemic, Charles and Jenny Chung long for a getaway from their home in Hong Kong. But with overseas travel stymied by the Chinese territory’s strict quarantine requirements, the couple found a different way to relax and recharge: five hours on a public bus.
The “Bus Sleeping Tour,” organized by a local company, Ulu Travel, is billed as the longest bus route in Hong Kong at 83 kilometers (51 miles). Narrated by a guide in Cantonese, it includes stops at a number of Instagram-friendly spots far from the skyscrapers of downtown. But passengers can also use it to get the shut-eye that can be so elusive in Hong Kong.
Nearly 70 percent of Hong Kong residents have trouble sleeping, according to a telephone survey conducted last year by the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Wing Yun-kwok, a professor and director of the university’s Sleep Assessment Unit, said Hong Kong’s population is among the most sleep-deprived in the world.
“Hong Kongers tend to sleep very late, mostly after 12 a.m. or 1 a.m., but wake up very early in the morning,” he said. “That’s why Hong Kongers have a relatively short sleep duration compared to people from other parts of Asia.”
The city’s achievement-oriented culture downplays the importance of sleep, Wing said, adding that light pollution and late-night dining may also contribute to local sleep deprivation. As in other cities, Hong Kong’s public transportation is often filled with dozing commuters as a result.
“Everyone in Hong Kong has done it at least once,” Charles Chung said. “I nap on the bus for 15 minutes and feel refreshed, and I probably sleep better on the bus than at home.”On a Sunday in November, the Chungs and about 40 other passengers gathered at a restaurant in Hong Kong’s New Territories, where they were first served a “food coma” lunch. As they boarded the double-decker bus — all wearing masks in line with local pandemic rules — each was provided with earplugs and a sleep mask. The bus then set off along a highway that winds along the coast, looking out on the South China Sea.
The highway is well known for its soporific effects, Charles Chung said: “When I drive the car through this road, all my friends fall asleep.”
The couple didn’t get as much sleep as they had expected, however, because the bus stopped about once an hour: first at the Hong Kong container port, one of the busiest in the world, then at a popular vantage point near the airport, where wistful travelers can still see flights going in and out, although much less frequently than before the pandemic.
The bus also stopped at Butterfly Beach, Hong Kong’s closest beach to mainland China, before it made a final stop at the artificial Inspiration Lake next to Hong Kong Disneyland.
“Every time the bus makes a stop, I have to wake up again to get off,” Charles said.
Carol Mak, 39, was unsure about the bus tour before she bought tickets, which start at 129 Hong Kong dollars ($16.50). More typical bus fare that rarely exceeds more than a few dollars.
“If I wanted to nap on a bus, I can just find a relatively long bus lane and sleep,” she said.
But her 6-year-old son, Dickson, is a budding transportation enthusiast who loves to take long bus rides just for the fun of it.
By the end of the tour, Mak said, she could see why it would appeal to people like her son.
Compared to a more traditional tour bus, she said, “the time spent at a scenic spot is shorter, but the time we spend on the bus is much longer, so I think it’s great for people who like to ride the bus itself.”
Hong Kong residents love to travel — according to the U.N. World Tourism Organization, the territory ranked 12th in the world for spending on outbound tourism in 2019, and places like Japan, Taiwan and Thailand are short flights away.
But they have had to get creative during the pandemic, which prompted Hong Kong officials to close the border and impose strict quarantine requirements on people arriving from overseas. Confined to one place, they are exploring Hong Kong’s outlying islands and crowding its hundreds of miles of hiking trails; the sleeping bus tour is sold out.
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Those local adventures are possible in part because the border closure and compulsory quarantine — up to 21 days, among the longest periods in the world — have kept Hong Kong virtually Covid-free. The city of 7 million people has recorded fewer than 13,000 cases and 213 deaths.
But as the rest of the world accepts the coronavirus as endemic and eases restrictions, Hong Kong is following mainland China in sticking with its “zero-Covid” approach, drawing criticism from multinational companies with local offices who say it is stifling the economy. The crucial tourism sector has been hit especially hard, with visitor arrivals from January to September down more than 98 percent from the same period last year, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
Companies like Ulu Travel have had to innovate as a result, focusing on domestic tourism in an area smaller than Los Angeles. Founder Frankie Chow said his local offerings include an LGBTQ-focused tour, a tour for meeting fellow divorcees and a dog-friendly bus tour.
“We didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing,” he said. “I wanted to do something special, so we got to discussing.”
Kenneth Kong, one of Ulu Travel’s employees, came up with the idea when he saw a friend say on Facebook that he had insomnia at home but slept well on the bus after work.
“We had to try just once,” Kong said. “We can watch people’s reactions to see if it’s really worth it, and it was.”