Sihanoukville: A cruise ship which spent two weeks at sea after being turned away by five countries over fears that someone aboard may have the coronavirus arrived in Cambodia on Thursday to the relief of passengers and the praise of global health officials.
The MS Westerdam, which has 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, could be seen at an offshore anchoring point from the docks of the Cambodian port town of Sihanoukville early on Thursday morning.
Welcome preparations were underway at the docks, with embassy officials and Cambodian health authorities from Phnom Penh waiting alongside journalists and people carrying bouquets of flowers.
"We've had so many near moments we thought we were going home only to be turned away," Angela Jones, an American tourist on board the ship, told Reuters in a text message.
Jones and her fellow passengers had spent almost two weeks at sea as the ship failed to find a country that would allow it to dock.
"This morning, just seeing land was such a breathtaking moment," said Jones. "I thought: Is this real?"
Passengers on board the ship have been subjected to regular health checks throughout the troubled journey, according to Holland America, the ship operator and a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp.
Although no-one on board has fallen ill, the ship was turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand over fears that someone on the cruise could have the new flu-like virus that has killed more than 1,300 people, almost all of them in China.
To kill time on board and break up the monotony of endless ocean scrolling past cabin windows, the ship's crew have organised dozens of activities to keep people occupied, tourists on board the vessel told Reuters earlier this week.
Westerdam captain Vincent Smit said in a letter to passengers the ship would be at anchor outside Sihanoukville first to allow authorities to conduct health checks on board.
Most passengers would be able to disembark and begin their journey home via chartered flights from Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, from Feb. 14 at the earliest according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters.
"We are very pleased to have our final plan," Smit said in the letter.
Cambodian officials boarded the Westerdam shortly after it laid anchor on Thursday morning, according to videos of the boarding seen by Reuters.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Cambodia for allowing the Westerdam to dock.
"This is an example of international solidarity we have been consistently calling for," Tedros said ahead of the ship's arrival. "Outbreaks can bring out the best and the worst in people."
Stoking fears of authorities in countries on the ship's route has been the ongoing quarantine in Japan of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also managed by a unit of Carnival Corp. A total of 175 out of the 3,700 people on board the Diamond Princess have tested positive for the coronavirus.
On Tuesday, the Westerdam had attempted to dock in Bangkok but was denied permission by Thai authorities to do so. On Wednesday, a Thai Navy warship escorted the Westerdam out of the Gulf of Thailand, where it headed on a new course to Cambodia, according to the Marine Traffic ship-tracking website.
The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia said he had dispatched a team to assist U.S. citizens with disembarking and transferring to onward destinations, and was coordinating with embassies of other nationalities.