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 turned away from Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand over fears it was carrying someone with COVID-19, a virus that has now killed almost 1,500 people and sickened 65,000, 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 does this because 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.
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 its 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.
Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving leader, has been vocal in his support for 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.