Sihanoukville: Hundreds of cruise ship passengers who were stranded at sea by the coronavirus fears cheered as they finally disembarked in Cambodia and were welcomed by the nation’s authoritarian leader.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted the passengers with roses and agreed to let the Westerdam dock at the port of Sihanoukville. Incidentally, countries like Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam had barred ships 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, a passenger 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.
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 stomach aches or fever, but the tests done at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had COVID-19.
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 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.
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.