SIHANOUKVILLE, CAMBODIA - Ochheu Teal Beach, long, sandy and narrow, is Cambodia's nicest beach closest to the port city of Sihanoukville. On Friday afternoon, beachgoers included passengers who disembarked hours earlier from the Westerdam, the cruise ship welcomed by Cambodia after other countries rejected it because of coronavirus fears.
The passengers left the ship after passing health checks that determined 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, had allowed the stranded cruise liner to anchor off its coast Thursday morning prior to docking. The vessel, with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, had been turned away by Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand and the U.S. territory of Guam. The ship, which is owned by U.S.-based Holland America Lines, left Hong Kong on February 1.
'See the beach'
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has downplayed the risk of COVID-19, greeted the passengers by handing out roses.
“They can go out and see the beach,” he told reporters. He added that it may take as long as a week for all the passengers to disembark.
On Friday, Nguyen Anne, 60, a Vietnamese-Canadian, told VOA Khmer that she was on a two-month cruise that began in mid-January in Singapore. A retired high school teacher, she said her health was fine.
“Everybody in the ship is healthy,” said Anne, who was cruising with her husband, Paul Le, 72, a retired doctor. “There is no disease, no coronavirus. I don’t know why they refused to welcome us.”
At the beach, Anne spread a towel that proclaimed “Holland America Line” on a chair, then began taking photos of the beach, the sea and the islands as her husband sat nearby.
“I read a lot of news and it said that everybody in the ship is very unhappy and very worried. It is not true at all,” she said. “Holland America takes care of us. Everything is excellent on the ship. We were not worried at all.”
Holland America Lines provided the passengers with homeward travel, a 100% refund of their cruise fare, plus an additional 100% future cruise credit, according to a release from the company. Passengers and crew also received complimentary onboard internet and phone access.
At the port, more than 400 passengers had boarded buses with “Welcome to Cambodia” signs, then headed to Sihanoukville International Airport for flights to Phnom Penh. Some told VOA Khmer they planned to stay in Phnom Penh on Friday and then fly to their respective countries on Saturday, or as soon as flights could be arranged.
“I will stay one day in Phnom Penh. I have my health check card with me,” Ann-Maree Melling, 66, who was on the cruise with her husband, told VOA Khmer. “I think the people outside were more concerned than us because we were well looked after and health checked. ... So we were lucky on the Westerdam.
“The ship is amazing. Coming to Cambodia is amazing as well.”
Caution is understandable
When asked about the countries that had refused to let the ship dock, Melling said: “We were a little bit sad, but understood very well. [It’s] very important to be cautious.”
On Saturday morning, Melling planned to fly from Phnom Penh to Australia via Singapore.
Another passenger, Wann Phithin, 64, a Cambodian Canadian, said she purchased her ticket three months ago. She flew from Cambodia’s Siem Reap province to Hong Kong to board the cruise, which had scheduled visits including Manila, three in Taiwan, four in Japan and one in South Korea before the final docking in Shanghai.
“The situation on the ship [was] normal. We didn’t even wear masks. I don’t know what information has been spread outside,” said Wann Phithin, who was cruising with her husband, sister-in-law and two sisters.
“The information has been distorted,” she added. “There was a news [report] that there are 1,000 Chinese in the ship. But there are less than 100 [passengers] from Asia. Only three Chinese from Hong Kong. ... There are no Chinese from China.”