SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (AP) — A cruise ship that had been stranded at sea for about two weeks after being refused entry by four Asian governments because of virus fears finally docked Thursday in Cambodia.
Cambodia agreed to let the MS Westerdam dock at the port of Sihanoukville after Thailand barred it on Wednesday, following similar bans by Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. They kept the ship away over concerns that it would expose them to the new virus from China.
The Westerdam was unwelcome elsewhere even though operator Holland America Line said no cases of the COVID-19 viral illness have been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members.
The ship initially anchored offshore, where a team of health officials began checks. It then moved at sunset to a berth at the port in the Gulf of Thailand.
“Landed!” passenger Lydia Miller, who runs a small farm and inn in Washington State, exclaimed on Twitter. “Thank you Cambodia! You believed in us when no one else would. We promise to spend lots of money in your country. #westerdam”
Once health checks and immigration procedures are completed, the passengers are to disembark and be taken to Sihanoukville airport, from where they will fly to the capital, Phnom Penh, to catch flights home.
Some 20 passengers have reported stomachaches or fever, Cambodian health officials said. The ship’s health staff considered them to be normal illnesses, but the ill passengers were being isolated from others, Health Ministry spokeswoman Or Vandine said.
A military helicopter was used to carry samples from those passengers to the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh for analysis.
She said if tests show that any passengers have the disease, they’ll be allowed to receive treatment in the country.
A team from the U.S. Embassy with consular, logistics and health personnel was on site to assist U.S. citizens.
“From the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, we will stick with you as long as it takes,” U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy said a a video posted online.
Personnel from several European embassies were also at the scene.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said on his Facebook page that he would come to Sihanoukville on Friday to meet the passengers.
Earlier, in his first public comments about the ship, he said Cambodia had let the Westerdam dock for humanitarian reasons.
A strong supporter of China, he has played down any threat from the new virus and even threatened to kick out reporters or officials seen wearing protective face masks.
“Like I said, the real disease is fear, not the virus. We want to eliminate the fear of disease,” he said in an interview with Fresh News, an online news service close to his government.
Unlike other Asian nations, he has declined to ban direct flights between Cambodia and China, saying that would disturb bilateral relations and hurt his country’s economy. Cambodia has one confirmed case of the virus, a visitor from China, despite its popularity with Chinese tourists.
“If no one allows entry, Cambodia does. The kingdom does not just cooperate with China, but with all nations,” Hun Sen said in the interview. “Coronavirus is a global challenge, and … our humanitarian affairs have no borders.”
Acting as a good Samaritan is an unusual role for Hun Sen, who is often accused of being an authoritarian leader who abuses human rights and democratic norms.
The ship’s request to remain in Cambodia has been approved through next Monday.
The Westerdam began its cruise in Singapore last month and its last stop before it was refused further landings was in Hong Kong, where 51 cases of the disease and one death have been confirmed.
The virus has sickened tens of thousands of people in China since December, and 218 cases have been confirmed on another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, which made stops in Hong Kong and other ports before arriving in Japan last week.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said earlier he was pleased Cambodia had agreed to accept the Westerdam and described it as an example of the international solidarity advocated by the U.N. health agency.
Peck reported from Bangkok.