Passengers on shunned coronavirus ship greeted with kisses from Cambodia PMby Faye Brown
The Cambodian leader has put on a display of affection for cruise ship passengers who were stranded at sea for two weeks over coronavirus fears.
Prime Minister Hun Sen greeted travellers on the shunned Westerdam ship with flowers and kisses after agreeing to let them disembark in the city of Sihanoukville on Thursday.
He came to their rescue after Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam barred the ship from docking at their ports, despite no cases of the deadly disease being recorded on board.
As the 1,400 passengers arrived on dry land he said: ‘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’.
Cruise operator Holland America Line said around 20 people on the Westerdam had reported stomach aches or fever, but tests for the coronavirus showed none had the illness.
Despite this, the ship was unwelcome in five countries, resulting in travellers and crew members being stranded at sea for two weeks.
Mr Sen said he acted for humanitarian reasons and 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.’
The authoritarian PM, who has ruled the country for 35 years, is a strong supporter of China.
He has previously downplayed threats from the novel disease and unlike other Asian nations, he declined to ban direct flights between Cambodia and China, saying that would hurt his country’s economy.
Cambodia has one confirmed case of the virus – a visitor from China.
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 backpacker hotspot Sihanoukville or even visit the famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap.
The passengers of Westerdam cheered as they walked toward waiting buses. Many chose to wear traditional Cambodian scarfs around their necks as a sign of thanks.
Joe Spaziani, 74, from Florida, told local reporters: ‘Your country did a great job. Did a wonderful job. Thank you very much. We appreciate it very much.
‘Even the United States, Guam, did not let us land, but Cambodia did, so that’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. It’s been a long struggle and we appreciate everyone being here.’
Vice governor in Preah Sihanouk province,Mang Sineth, said around 400 passengers will leave the port Friday and fly to Cambodia’s capital before travelling to their final destinations.
It is hoped that all passengers will be able to leave Sihanoukville for their home countries by Sunday.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy called the disembarking activities ‘heartwarming sights … with Cambodian hospitality on full display.’
The COVID-19 illness has infected over 60,000 people world wide and killed over 1,000, mostly in mainland China.
The Westerdam began its cruise in Singapore last month and was rejected after making a stop in Hong Kong, where 53 cases of the disease and one death have been confirmed.