A US cruise ship blocked from several Asian ports over concerns that a passenger could have been infected with the new coronavirus arrived off Cambodia Thursday, as frustrated holidaymakers expressed hope that their ordeal may soon be over.
The Westerdam was supposed to be taking its 1,455 passengers on a dream 14-day cruise around east Asia, beginning in Hong Kong on February 1 and disembarking on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.
But the ship was turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears of the novel coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 1,300 people in China.
Cruise operator Holland America has insisted there are no cases of the SARS-like virus on board and Cambodia announced Wednesday the ship would be able to dock in Sihanoukville, on its southern coast.
By morning, the ship could be seen on the horizon off Sihanoukville, dwarfing the small fishing vessels that usually ply the waters.
"First land sighting from the #Westerdam as the sun rises over Cambodia," passenger Christina Kerby tweeted.
Doctors were conducting health checks for the passengers, said transport minister Sun Chanthol, adding that about 20 on board were sick.
Their samples will be sent to the Pasteur Institute to test for the virus.
But "actually they don't have symptoms of COVID-19. We just want to make sure that everything is ok," he told AFP.
Cambodian premier Hun Sen is a staunch Chinese ally and has been vocal in his support of Beijing's handling of the epidemic, even going so far as to visit China last week in a show of solidarity.
"The permission to dock is to stop the disease of fear that is happening around the world," he told state-affiliated media website Fresh News on Wednesday.
"We must help them when they asked us for help," he added.
Neighbouring Thailand, which blocked the Westerdam from docking in its eastern seaboard port, on Thursday received cruise liner Seabourne Ovation in holiday resort town Phuket.
Another ship MV Quantum of the Seas is also scheduled to arrive Thursday.
Both ships were "not at risk", an official said, adding that health checks were done before passengers could disembark for 10 hours.
"The passengers and crew... are European, which is different from MS Westerdam where there are some Chinese and Hong Kong passengers," deputy transport minister Atirat Ratanasate said in a Facebook post.
Japan's premier Shinzo Abe expressed worries last week over a possible infection on the Westerdam, and said measures will be taken to "reject entries" for foreigners into the country.
Cambodia, which has one confirmed case of the virus, is the recipient of billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure, and investment from China.
Passenger Stephen Hansen earlier told AFP he was disappointed about Thailand rejecting the Westerdam but hoped that he would be able to disembark in Cambodia.
"Running out of countries to try!" he said.