Sihanoukville: After being stranded at sea for two weeks because five ports refused to allow their cruise ship to dock, the passengers of the MS Westerdam were anything but sure their ordeal was finally over.
Then the authoritarian leader of Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen, agreed to let the Westerdam dock. Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam had earlier turned the ship way because they feared its passengers and crew could spread the deadly new virus from China, but Hun Sen declared he would welcome them.
The first batch of hundreds of passengers who disembarked recently, saw the Cambodian leader arrive by helicopter and then personally hand them flowers as they made their way to land.
“Today, although Cambodia is a poor country, Cambodia has always joined the international community to solve the problems that the world and our region are facing,” Hun Sen said as the first passengers disembarked.
The grateful passengers sang his praises.
“How wonderful it is to be here. Thank you very much to the prime minister. He has a wonderful heart,” said Anna Marie Melon, from Queensland, Australia. “I’m very excited (to be here)," she said as she waved a rose Hun Sen had handed to her.
The passengers cheered as they walked toward waiting buses and waved goodbye to other passengers watching from the ship’s deck.
"Cambodia alone, even the United States, Guam, did not let us land, but Cambodia did, so that’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful," Joe Spaziani, from Florida, told reporters. "We appreciate it very very much. It’s been a long struggle and we appreciate everyone being here.”
He and many other passengers wore a krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf, around their necks.
After some uncertainty, they came to accept the ship's doctor's declaration that none of the passengers had the feared COVID-19 viral illness. But there was concern that some people's supplies of necessary medication would run out and there were many text messages from worried family members back home.
The Westerdam's operator, Holland America Line, had said no cases of the virus had been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members. Some 20 passengers reported stomachaches or fever, but tests for the virus done at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had the illness.
Hun Sen said he acted for humanitarian reasons and that he wanted passengers to be able to return to their home countries.
A strong supporter of China, Hun Sen has downplayed threats from the new virus, and unlike other Asian nations, he declined to ban direct flights between Cambodia and China, saying that would disturb bilateral relations and hurt his country's economy. Cambodia has only one confirmed case of the virus, a visitor from China, despite its popularity with Chinese tourists.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to boost his country's tourism profile, Hun Sen said the passengers were free to go to the beach, go sightseeing in Sihanoukville, where the ship docked, or even visit the famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex in the northwest.
The COVID-19 illness has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and a few hundred elsewhere, including 218 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which made stops in Hong Kong and other ports before arriving in Japan last week, where it has been quarantined.
The Westerdam began its cruise in Singapore last month and its last stop before it was refused further landings was in Hong Kong, where 56 cases of the disease and one death have been confirmed. Several hundred new passengers boarded the ship there for the second leg of the planned month-long cruise.
-Courtesy by Bloomberg