BANGKOK: Cambodia has agreed to let a cruise ship, that has been turned away by five countries over fears that someone aboard may have the coronavirus, to dock and disembark its passengers, the Holland America Line said on Wednesday (Feb 12).
For nearly two weeks, the MS Westerdam, a ship of healthy passengers, had been sailing throughout Asia after being turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam and the Philippines over fears that someone on the cruise could have the new flu-like virus that has killed more than 1,100 people, almost all of them in China.
"We will immediately begin making our way to Sihanoukville in Cambodia," Westerdam captain Vincent Smit told passengers, according to a recording of the announcement reviewed by Reuters.
"There will be a brief health inspection on board by the Cambodian authorities which will take place at anchor just before we arrive alongside," said Smit.
The ship is expected to arrive in Cambodia around 7am on Thursday, he said.
The latest country to shun the ship, which has 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board, had been Thailand, where the health minister refused to grant the Westerdam permission to dock.
"The staff has tried to bolster spirits but you can only play so many games of trivia," Angela Jones, a business consultant from the US state of Georgia, told Reuters in a video recording sent before the news that Cambodia would take the ship. "I've asked others who say they are napping a lot."
Like many on board, Jones had embarked in Hong Kong for a much-anticipated cruise through the region in early February. It was scheduled to be a two-week cruise, but with that period running out this week, there had been worries about fuel and food supplies. Many on board are elderly and there was also concerns they could be running out of medicines.
CHESS AND SQUABBLES
To kill time 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.
People could be seen playing chess and doing puzzles on Wednesday, in some of the first pictures published by media of life aboard the ship.
Other activities on offer included colouring-in for adults; teeth whitening; poker tournaments; whisky tasting; even a lecture on modern China which delved into the economics of collective farming, according to passengers on board and a copy of the ship's activity programme seen by Reuters.
Passengers on board the ship have been subjected to regular health checks, according to Holland America, the ship operator and a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp. There have been no reported cases of the coronavirus on board.
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.
Late on Wednesday, the Westerdam changed its course away from Bangkok and began heading towards Cambodia, according to data published by the Marine Traffic ship tracking website.
Earlier, the Thai Navy "Bhumibol Adulyadej" warship could be seen escorting the Westerdam in waters just off the Thai coast, according to passengers and Marine Traffic.
Despite the uncertainty, crew members had staged a farewell ceremony for passengers on Wednesday morning, singing to the tune of the 1979 hit "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.
Elsewhere on board, the patience of some passengers has been tested by the prolonged uncertainty, Jones said, as some people pushed and shoved for access to one of the ship's only available computers and printers, to re-book flights home.
"Hard to imagine these senior cruisers coming to blows but guess that happened," said Jones. "It's funny and sad at the same time".