Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, left, gives a bouquet of flowers to a passenger who disembarked from the MS Westerdam, owned by Holland America Line, at the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Friday, Feb. 14, 2020. Hundreds of cruise ship passengers long stranded at sea by virus fears cheered as they finally disembarked Friday and were welcomed to Cambodia. (AP/PTI Photo)

Cruise passengers land after two weeks at sea over coronavirus fears


Passengers on a cruise ship that was turned away from ports around Asia over fears they could be carrying the new coronavirus finally began disembarking in Cambodia on Friday.

Cambodia's strongman premier Hun Sen welcomed around 100 tourists who were handed flowers as they stepped ashore after an uncertain two weeks at sea.

The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 2,257 passengers and crew on a 14-day cruise around east Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and ending on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.

But the vessel was barred by Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears it was carrying someone with a new virus that has now killed around 1,400 people and sickened 64,000, mostly in China.

Cambodia -- a staunch Beijing ally that receives huge sums of Chinese money every year -- announced this week that the boat could dock in Sihanoukville.

"Cambodia pays more attention to human rights... we respect the rights of the more than 2,000 people on the boat," Hun Sen said Friday as he welcomed tourists.

"We don't have wealth like a rich country but we have sympathy for the passengers stranded on the ship."

The first 100 people -- whose flights home have been provided by cruise operator Holland America -- were garlanded with jasmine and traditional Cambodian scarves.

"We're very happy to go home, we're so happy that Cambodia has made this possible," a Danish passenger who gave her name only as Lina told AFP.

From the deck of the Westerdam, the remaining cruise-goers waved and cheered. All will be allowed to disembark, Hun Sen said, after no cases of the coronavirus were found aboard.

Passenger Christina Kerby -- who has been posting light-hearted updates from the ship since the ordeal started -- said she was "in tears" over the warm reception.

"The show of support is overwhelming," she tweeted.

Cambodia receives billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure, and investment from China, which dispenses it with no questions asked over human rights abuses in the country.

Hun Sen, Asia's longest serving leader, has been vocal in his praise of Beijing's handling of the epidemic, which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Unlike most western nations, he refused to evacuate citizens from the epicentre, insisting that Cambodians should show their support for the Chinese.

Last week he travelled to Beijing to meet with premier Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping in a show of solidarity.

The apparent act of compassion over the Westerdam by Hun Sen follows the partial withdrawal by the European Union of trade benefits to some Cambodian industries over the kingdom's woeful rights record.