SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (AP) — Hundreds of cruise ship passengers long stranded at sea by virus fears cheered as they finally disembarked Friday and were welcomed to Cambodia by the nation's authoritarian leader, who handed them flowers.
Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to let the Westerdam dock at the port of Sihanoukville on Thursday after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam had barred the ship earlier.
“How wonderful it is to be here. Thank you very much to the prime minister. He has a wonderful heart,” said Anna Marie Melon, from Queensland, Australia. “I’m very excited (to be here)," she said as she waved a rose Hun Sen handed to her.
The passengers cheered as they walked toward waiting buses and waved goodbye to other passengers watching from the ship’s deck.
“Your country did a great job. Did a wonderful job. Thank you very much. We appreciate it very much,” Joe Spaziani, 74, from Florida, told local reporters at the port. He and many other passengers wore a krama, a traditional Cambodian scarf, around their necks.
“Cambodia alone, even the United States, Guam, did not let us land, but Cambodia did, so that’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful," Spaziani said. "We appreciate it very very much. It’s been a long struggle and we appreciate everyone being here.”
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. Some 20 passengers were tested for the virus after they reported stomachaches or fever, but the tests done at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had COVID-19.
Mang Sineth, the vice governor in Preah Sihanouk province, told reporters 414 passengers will leave the port Friday and fly to Cambodia's capital before traveling to their final destinations. Three flights from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh were arranged to take all the ship's passengers.
The COVID-19 illness has sickened tens of thousands of people in China and a few hundred elsewhere, including 218 on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, which made stops in Hong Kong and other ports before arriving in Japan last week.
Hun Sen said earlier he had let the Westerdam dock in Cambodia 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 has been in power for 35 years. His party swept 2018 elections that drew sharp condemnation as neither free nor fair after a court dissolved the only credible opposition party.
The U.S. has imposed diplomatic sanctions due to its repressive political climate, and the European Union earlier this week declared its intention to impose sanctions on Cambodia for human rights and trade union violations.
The Westerdam began its cruise in Singapore last month and its last stop before it was refused further landings was in Hong Kong, where 53 cases of the disease and one death have been confirmed.