A frightening weeklong odyssey is nearing an end for almost 1,500 passengers on board the cruise ship MS Westerdam, which had been turned away from ports in four virus-wary countries before being allowed to anchor this week in Cambodia.
Officials said passengers would be permitted to disembark Friday in the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville provided a health check showed they were free of COVID-19, the deadly, fast-spreading coronavirus first reported in Wuhan, China.
The government of Cambodia, which has strong ties to Beijing, finally allowed the stranded cruise liner to anchor off its coast Thursday morning. The vessel, with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, had previously been turned away by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Thailand.
Another cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, has been off the coast of Yokohama, Japan, for 10 days, with at least 218 passengers infected by the coronavirus.
The MS Westerdam arrived off Preah Sihanouk province’s Sihanoukville town about 7 a.m. local time Thursday, according to provincial authorities, but passengers have not been allowed off the ship, which is owned by U.S.-based Holland America Line. The ship left Hong Kong on February 1.
'It is taking time'
Holland America posted on its Facebook page Thursday morning, “Inspection and clearance procedures are proceeding. Given the number of organizations involved in supporting today’s complex operations, it is taking time. We are grateful to everyone in Cambodia who are helping and welcoming us.”
Local Cambodian authorities said the passengers could disembark only after clearing a health check, and if they had confirmed flight bookings from Sihanoukville International Airport. Passengers who meet these requirements are expected to come ashore on Friday, according to the provincial governor, Kuoch Chamroeun.
Lou Kim Chhun, director general of the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port, said the cruise ship would remain anchored 2.5 kilometers offshore and cleared passengers would be taken by buses to the airport on Friday.
A fleet of buses with “Welcome to Cambodia” signs was parked on shore all day Thursday.
In a statement emailed on Thursday, Holland America said “It is expected that a full disembarkation will take a few days given the charter flight schedule. During this time, guests will remain comfortably on board with full service in operation.”
The line has given each passenger a 100% refund of their cruise fare, plus an additional 100% future cruise credit. Passengers and crew are receiving complimentary onboard internet and phone access, the statement continued “to guests and crew to stay in contact with loved ones.”
“They will be able to leave if they have the flight tickets to go back. If they have a ticket, we will help coordinate,” said Kuoch Chamroeun.
The provincial governor added that some 80 health workers performed health checks on the passengers Thursday and had found some passengers to be unwell, but did not provide additional details.
20 ill, but no coronavirus
Or Vandine, a Health Ministry spokesperson, said 20 passengers showed symptoms of the flu, diarrhea and stomachaches. She said these passengers underwent tests for COVID-19 and samples had been flown to Phnom Penh’s Pasteur Institute.
“We have received the information that there are people whose health is not normal. But there is no case of COVID-19 so far,” she said.
Mam Bunheng, Cambodia’s health minister, said later Thursday that 20 ill passengers had tested negative for the coronavirus.
“We did the test and the result is negative,” he said. “It is done,” he added when asked if there would be more tests.
Christina Kerby, a passenger onboard the MS Westerdam who has been tweeting about the ship’s wanderings, said the captain had told passengers the “clearance process” was proceeding but was taking longer than anticipated.
U.S. Embassy spokesperson Emily Zeeberg told VOA Khmer there were more than 600 U.S. citizens on the MS Westerdam cruise ship.
“The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh is working closely with the government of Cambodia to help facilitate the docking and a safe disembarkation,” she said.
Zeeburg said that a U.S. Embassy team was assisting U.S. citizens transiting to their destinations.
It remained unclear if countries that had refused to allow the ship to dock would now allow passengers who passed Cambodia’s health screening to transit through their airports.
However, The Nation newspaper in Thailand quoted an immigration official Thursday who said that the passengers would be allowed to travel to other countries, including Thailand.
“We have requested the Cambodian government to submit the list of any passengers who want to enter Thailand as well as their health examination results,” said Archayon Kraithong, commander of Immigration Police Division 3.
Hun Sen downplays risks
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has downplayed the risks from the COVID-19 outbreak by refusing to restrict air and sea connections with China, even encouraging Chinese nationals to continue to travel to Cambodia.
He balked at evacuating Cambodian students from Wuhan, saying it was more important to show solidarity with the Chinese people.
The prime minister and Cambodia have received praise, though, for allowing the cruise liner to dock at Sihanoukville.
“Cambodia wants to show that Cambodia doesn’t only cooperate with China, but we cooperate with all nations because this has become a global concern,” Hun Sen said in an interview with local media on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Hun Sen posted on his Facebook page that he would go to “welcome [the passengers] in Sihanoukville as the host country which has solidarity and responsibility.”
'Welcome act of solidarity'
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, praised Cambodia on Twitter, a tweet that was quickly posted by the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh.
“This is a welcome act of solidarity at a time when the world has a window of opportunity to stop COVID-19 and avoid stigma and fear,” Ghebreyesus tweeted.
Since the outbreak, Cambodian authorities have confirmed only one case of COVID-19. The Chinese national’s case was confirmed on January 27. He tested negative three times and was released from a Sihanoukville hospital earlier this week, according to a Ministry of Health spokesperson.
Holland America’s statement also said, “The future voyage plan between cruises is still being finalized. The Feb. 15 Westerdam cruise scheduled to embark in Yokohama has been canceled.”
In another statement issued Thursday, the cruise line said, “We hope that guests on this voyage will join us again and sincerely thank them for the many compliments we have received for our crew and the acknowledgements that this situation was out of our control.”
Manilene Ek of VOA’s Khmer Service contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.