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.
“Today, although Cambodia is a poor country, Cambodia has always joined the international community to solve the problems that the world and our region are facing,” he said as the first passengers disembarked.
“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 reporters. 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 had reported stomachaches or fever, but tests for the virus done at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had the illness.
Hun Sen has said he acted for humanitarian reasons and said at the dock he wanted to allow passengers to return to their home countries.
“If Cambodia did not allow this ship to dock here, where should this ship go?” he said. “I want to inform Cambodians and the world that I coming here even for a short time means this is no time for discrimination and to be scared, but a time for everyone to be in solidarity to solve the problems we are facing now.”
A strong supporter of China, Hun Sen has downplayed threats from the new virus and unlike other Asian nations, he 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.
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 Cambodia’s repressive political climate, and the European Union earlier this week declared its intention to do the same, citing human rights and trade union violations.
Taking advantage of the opportunity to boost his country’s tourism profile, Hun Sen said the passengers were free to go to the beach, go sightseeing in Sihanoukville or even visit the famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex in the northwest.
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.
He said that if the flying arrangements went smoothly, all passengers would probably be leaving Sihanoukville by Sunday.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy on Twitter called the disembarking activities “heartwarming sights … with Cambodian hospitality on full display.”
He said “joint operation ‘Homeward Bound’ is underway!”
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.
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.