US cruise ship blocked over virus fears docks in Cambodia

Suy SE
1 / 4
The Westerdam approaches Sihanoukville, where it is expected to dock

A US cruise ship blocked from several Asian ports over concerns that a passenger could have been infected with the new coronavirus docked at a Cambodian pier Thursday, as frustrated holidaymakers expressed hope their ordeal may soon be over.

The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 1,455 passengers on a dream 14-day cruise around east Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and disembarking on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.

But the ship was turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears of the novel coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,300 people in China.

Cruise operator Holland America has insisted there are no cases of the SARS-like virus on board and Cambodia announced Wednesday that the boat would be able to dock in Sihanoukville, on its southern coast.

By evening, the ship moved into the beach town's port, moving past the small fishing vessels that usually ply the waters.

As it slowly approached the pier, people onshore snapped selfies of themselves with the massive vessel.

The mood was equally buoyant on the boat.

"Thank you Cambodia! You believed in us when no one would!" tweeted passenger Lydia Miller around 7 pm (1200 GMT). "We promise to spend lots of money in your country."

Fellow cruiser Christina Kerby -- who has been posting light-hearted updates from the Westerdam -- tweeted she was "feeling rebellious tonight so I'm wearing sneakers in the dining room".

But all passengers would have to remain onboard until flights have been arranged, said provincial governor Kuoch Chamroeun.

"The arrangement of the planes to take them from (Sihanoukville) airport to Phnom Penh airport is underway," he said, explaining that three flights were scheduled Friday morning.

Buses were lined up by the pier ready to transfer passengers to Sihanoukville's airport. Holland America has said they would foot the bill to return all guests.

- 'Disease of fear' -

Before the ship docked, doctors conducted health checks for the passengers.

The samples of 20 on board who were sick were sent to the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh to test for the virus, said transport minister Sun Chanthol.

Cambodian premier Hun Sen is a staunch Chinese ally and has been vocal in his support of Beijing's handling of the epidemic, even going so far as to visit China last week in a show of solidarity.

"The permission to dock is to stop the disease of fear that is happening around the world," he told state-affiliated media website Fresh News on Wednesday.

"We must help them when they asked us for help," he added.

Neighbouring Thailand, which blocked the Westerdam from docking in its eastern seaboard port, on Thursday received two cruise liners in holiday resort town Phuket.

Both Seabourne Ovation and Quantum of the Seas were allowed to dock, and passengers to alight for roughly 10 hours as part of the scheduled stop.

"They were all checked by their doctors on the ship, and we also examined them when they disembarked," Phuket governor Pakapong Tawipat told AFP.

He added that the passengers and the crew members "were not Chinese", and that Phuket was part of their regular routes, unlike the Westerdam.

Japan's premier Shinzo Abe expressed worries last week over a possible infection on the Westerdam, and said measures will be taken to "reject entries" for foreigners into the country.

Cambodia, which has one confirmed case of the virus, is the recipient of billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure, and investment from China.