SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia -- A cruise ship that spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over fears that someone aboard might have the coronavirus arrived in Cambodia on Thursday, to the relief of passengers and praise from global health officials.
The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, could be seen from the docks of the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville after anchoring offshore early in the morning.
People at the docks prepared to welcome passengers with bouquets of flowers, as embassy officials and Cambodian health authorities waited alongside journalists.
“We’ve had so many near moments we thought we were going home only to be turned away,” Angela Jones, an American tourist on board, told Reuters in a text message. “This morning, just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment.”
Jones and her fellow passengers have spent almost two weeks at sea as several countries refused to let their ship dock.
The timing of their final journeys home was still uncertain, however, as the ship faces health checks by authorities and passengers need to be taken to the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh to catch charter flights.
The ship’s captain, Vincent Smit, initially told passengers in a letter that some could leave Cambodia as early as Friday,
But in a later announcement, he said there could be delays because of the “number of organizations and authorities” supporting the operation to disembark, as well as the short notice given to Cambodia requesting permission to dock.
Local officials in Sihanoukville told reporters that chartered planes to take people from the port town to Phnom Penh were not ready yet, and the Westerdam had asked to delay disembarkation until Friday.
Passengers have had regular health checks during the troubled journey, said Holland America Line, the ship operator and a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp.
Cambodian health officials boarded the ship soon after it anchored. Later, a helicopter took off for Phnom Penh, carrying fluid samples from passengers for virus tests.
Although no one has fallen ill aboard, the ship was turned away by Guam, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears that someone on board could have the new flu-like virus that has killed more than 1,300 people, almost all in China.
To while away the time and break up the monotony of endless ocean scrolling past cabin windows, the ship’s crew organized dozens of activities, tourists on board told Reuters this week.
In a video address aboard the ship, Orlando Ashford, the president of Holland America Line, thanked passengers for their understanding in “incredibly unusual and challenging circumstances”.
“I’m sure you’ll have some good stories to tell when you reach your final destination home,” Ashford said in a copy of the video seen by Reuters.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Cambodia.
“This is an example of international solidarity we have been consistently calling for,” Tedros said ahead of the ship’s arrival. “Outbreaks can bring out the best and the worst in people.”
Stoking authorities’ fears in countries on the ship’s route has been the quarantine in Japan of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also managed by a unit of Carnival Corp. Of the 3,700 on that vessel, 175 tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday, the Westerdam tried to dock in Bangkok but was denied permission by Thai authorities. On Wednesday, a Thai Navy warship escorted it out of the Gulf of Thailand, and it set course for Cambodia, the Marine Traffic website showed.
The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia said he had sent a team to help U.S. citizens with disembarking and continuing their journeys, and was coordinating with embassies of other nations.
Jones said she was still trying to understand how she had ended up on a fortnight-long cruise to nowhere:
“Thousands of travelers by air interacting with hundreds of people can land no problem but a cruise ship that made a one-day stop in Hong Kong almost two weeks ago is rejected by so many countries,” she said.
“Still makes no sense”.