Passengers on a cruise ship that spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over coronavirus fears started disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.
The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked in the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville on Thursday. It had anchored offshore early in the morning to allow Cambodian officials to board and collect samples from passengers with any signs of ill health or flu-like symptoms.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the passengers with handshakes and bouquets of roses as they stepped off the ship and boarded a waiting bus.
Around 100 tourists were handed flowers as they stepped ashore after an uncertain two weeks at sea.
“My wife and I gave him some chocolates as a show of our appreciation,” Lou Poandel, a tourist from New Jersey, told Reuters after he disembarked and met the Cambodian leader.
The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 2,257 passengers and crew on a 14-day cruise around East Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and ending on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.
But the vessel was turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand over fears it was carrying someone with COVID-19, a virus that has now killed almost 1,500 people and sickened 65,000, mostly in China.
Australian health officials tested a passenger on board another cruise ship that docked in Sydney harbor for a “respiratory illness” on Friday, causing passengers to fret about the potential of another shipboard outbreak of the coronavirus. The health ministry did not specify the nature of the respiratory illness or specifically rule out the coronavirus.
Separately, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (RCL.N) said it had canceled 18 cruises in Southeast Asia and joined larger rival Carnival Corp (CCL.N) in warning that its full-year earnings would be hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Global health authorities are still scrambling to find “patient zero” – a person who carried the disease into a company meeting in Singapore from which it spread to five other countries.
Cambodia — a staunch Beijing ally that receives huge sums of Chinese money every year — announced this week that the boat could dock in Sihanoukville.
“Cambodia does this because Cambodia pays more attention to human rights… we respect the rights of the more than 2,000 people on the boat,” Hun Sen said Friday as he welcomed tourists.
“We don’t have wealth like a rich country but we have sympathy for the passengers stranded on the ship.”