A Briton who was stranded at sea for two weeks after five ports refused to allow a cruise ship to dock amid coronavirus fears has said he is “really thankful” to be going home after it was allowed into a port in Cambodia.
John Stanley, of Evesham, Worcestershire, had been with his wife Olive on the MS Westerdam since it left Singapore in January on the first leg of its journey.
After some uncertainty, they came to accept the ship’s doctor’s declaration that none of the passengers had the feared Covid-19 viral illness.
But there was concern that some people’s supplies of medication would run out and there were many text messages from worried family members back home.
“So it was a question of being really, really thankful to the Cambodian government and really, really relieved that we can go home,” Mr Stanley said.
“To be honest, until we’d actually gone off the ship, we didn’t really believe it because we had one or two situations before where we thought we were getting off.”
Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Guam had turned the ship away because they feared its passengers and crew could spread the deadly virus from China, until Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen agreed to let the Westerdam dock.
The first batch of hundreds of passengers who disembarked on Friday saw the Cambodian leader arrive by helicopter and then personally hand them flowers as they made their way to land.
“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,” Hun Sen 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.”
The passengers cheered as they walked towards waiting buses and waved goodbye to other passengers watching from the ship’s deck.
“Cambodia alone, even the United States, Guam, did not let us land, but Cambodia did, so that’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful,” Joe Spaziani, from Florida, told reporters. “We appreciate it very very much. It’s been a long struggle and we appreciate everyone being here.”
The Westerdam’s operator, Holland America Line, said no cases of the virus had been confirmed among its 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members. Some 20 passengers reported stomach aches or fever, but tests for the virus at the Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh showed none had the illness.
Hun Sen said he acted for humanitarian reasons and he wanted passengers to be able 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 only one confirmed case of the virus, a visitor from China, despite its popularity with Chinese tourists.
Hun Sen said the passengers were free to go to the beach, go sightseeing in Sihanoukville, where the ship docked, or even visit the famous centuries-old Angkor Wat temple complex in the north west.
Mang Sineth, the vice governor in Preah Sihanouk province, told reporters 414 passengers were to leave the port on Friday and fly to Cambodia’s capital before travelling to their final destinations.
Three flights from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh were arranged to take all the ship’s passengers.