SIHANOUKVILLE: Passengers on a cruise ship that spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over coronavirus fears started disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.
The MS Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked in the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville on Thursday. It had anchored offshore early in the morning to allow Cambodian officials to board and collect samples from passengers with any signs of ill health or flu-like symptoms.
After tests, no one on board was found to be carrying the virus, Cambodia's health ministry said.
Cambodian authorities granted permission for passengers to disembark on Friday morning, the ship's operator, Holland America Line, a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp, said in a statement, ending two weeks of uncertainty for the cruise.
Charter flights were being organised to help passengers return home, the statement said.
"Flight details are being communicated to guests as they are finalised, and it is expected that a full disembarkation will take a few days given the charter flight schedule," the statement said.
The sound of cheering inside the ship could be heard from Sihanoukville port when the Westerdam finally docked on Thursday evening.
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen welcomes a passenger. (Reuters photo)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen personally greeted the passengers with handshakes and bouquets of roses as they stepped off the ship and boarded a waiting bus.
"My wife and I gave him some chocolates as a show of our appreciation," Lou Poandel, a tourist from New Jersey, told Reuters after he disembarked and met the Cambodian leader.
World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Cambodia for its example of "international solidarity" that the WHO has been calling for.
Stoking authorities' fears in countries on the ship's route had been the quarantine in Japan of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also managed by a unit of Carnival Corp. Of the 3,700 passengers and crew on that vessel, 218 have tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday, the Westerdam tried to dock in Bangkok, but Thai authorities denied permission. On Wednesday, a Thai Navy warship escorted it out of the Gulf of Thailand, and it set a course for Cambodia, the Marine Traffic website showed.
William Gregory, a 76-year-old American tourist, said he was very happy with how he had been treated on board during the ordeal.
"They kept us in good spirits," he told Reuters. "I didn't stress. Very relaxing. We took tai chi".