A US cruise ship blocked from several Asian ports over concerns that a passenger could have been infected with the new coronavirus arrived off Cambodia Thursday, as frustrated holidaymakers expressed hope that their ordeal may soon be over.
The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 1,455 passengers on a dream 14-day cruise around east Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and disembarking on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.
But the ship was turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears of the novel coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,300 people in China.
Cruise operator Holland America has insisted there are no cases of the SARS-like virus on board and Cambodia announced Wednesday that the boat would be able to dock in Sihanoukville, on its southern coast.
By morning, the ship could be seen on the horizon off Sihanoukville, dwarfing the small fishing vessels that usually ply the waters.
“First land sighting from the #Westerdam as the sun rises over Cambodia,” passenger Christina Kerby tweeted.
But the ship would dock early Friday, said provincial governor Kuoch Chamroeun.
“(Holland America) have asked to delay docking until Friday because they could not arrange for planes (from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh),” he said.
By mid-day, buses were lined up by the pier ready to transfer passengers to Sihanoukville’s airport, where they would fly to Phnom Penh before traveling home — a return trip that Holland America will pay for.
Doctors were conducting health checks for the passengers, said transport minister Sun Chanthol.
The samples of 20 on board who were sick were sent to the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh to test for the virus.
But “actually they don’t have symptoms of COVID-19. We just want to make sure that everything is ok,” he said.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen is a staunch Chinese ally and has been vocal in his support of Beijing’s handling of the epidemic, even going so far as to visit China last week in a show of solidarity.
“The permission to dock is to stop the disease of fear that is happening around the world,” he told state-affiliated media website Fresh News on Wednesday.
“We must help them when they asked us for help,” he added.
Neighbouring Thailand, which blocked the Westerdam from docking in its eastern seaboard port, on Thursday received two cruise liners in holiday resort town Phuket.
Both Seabourne Ovation and Quantum of the Seas were allowed to dock, and passengers to alight for roughly 10 hours as part of the scheduled stop.
“They were all checked by their doctors on the ship, and we also examined them when they disembarked,” Phuket governor Pakapong Tawipat said.
He added that the passengers and the crew members “were not Chinese”, and that Phuket was part of their regular routes, unlike the Westerdam.
Japan’s premier Shinzo Abe expressed worries last week over a possible infection on the Westerdam, and said measures will be taken to “reject entries” for foreigners into the country.
Cambodia, which has one confirmed case of the virus, is the recipient of billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure, and investment from China.
Passenger Stephen Hansen earlier told he was disappointed about Thailand rejecting the Westerdam but hoped that he would be able to disembark in Cambodia. “Running out of countries to try!” he said.