All-at-sea cruise ship finally gets permission to berth

Dene-Hern CHEN with Aidan JONES in Bangkok
·3 min read

Pattaya (Thailand) (AFP) - Aboard a US cruise ship that was rejected at Asian ports over coronavirus fears, stoic passengers kept their spirits up with poolside yoga, spin classes, comedy shows and a few drinks.

But the 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members of the Westerdam really rejoiced on Wednesday after learning Cambodia had given permission for the cruise liner to dock at Sihanoukville, on its southern coast.

The scheduled arrival Thursday will bring an end to what was meant to be a dream 14-day cruise across Asia -- beginning from Hong Kong on February 1, and disembarking on Saturday in Yokohama, Japan.

Japan, Guam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Thailand all refused to allow the ship to dock, despite Holland America insisting there were no cases of the deadly disease -- which has killed over 1,100 -- on board.

Several other cruise ships have been refused entry at ports across the Asia-Pacific region -- from Singapore to Tonga -- as fears over the virus spike.

Cambodia's decision to receive the Westerdam comes as its strongman leader has voiced vocal support for China -- with premier Hun Sen going so far as to travel to Beijing last week in a show of solidarity.

The Southeast Asian nation -- with just one confirmed case of the SARS-like virus -- has been the recipient of billions of dollars in soft loans, infrastructure and investment from its superpower ally.

"Guests will be able to go ashore," operator Holland America said in a statement. "We are extremely grateful to the Cambodian authorities for their support."

Even with their holiday plans in tatters, passengers made the most of the extraordinary circumstances -- some taking to social media to share amusing asides on life unwanted and at sea.

"Not a bad place to be captive. I'm in the salon having my hair done right now and getting ready to hit the buffet," Christina Kerby said on Twitter, where her photos of yoga or posts on morning spin classes have bounced around.

Speaking to AFP after hearing of their final destination, her reaction was one of elation -- "Thrilled! Thank you, Cambodia!" she said, adding a heart emoji.

The mood on board was "relieved and upbeat".

"At this point we're just happy to have a destination," she told AFP.

- Barred from docking -

The atmosphere is in stark contrast to the gloom aboard the Diamond Princess, a quarantined Japanese cruise ship riddled with the virus which has forced passengers into a depressing lockdown in cabins.

"We're all good. The mood is positive... there's no tension on aboard" said Lorraine Oliveira, from Ireland, on the ship with her husband and two children.

Before it was barred from docking, boat operator Holland America Line initially said the cruise will disembark on Thursday at Thailand's Laem Chabang port, a few hours east of Bangkok.

With no idea of where they would make land or when, passengers cancelled onward flights, travel plans scrambled by events -- and governments -- beyond their control.

Holland America said Wednesday that all onward travel from Sihanoukville will be arranged and paid for, and full refunds will be given to guests.

"All guests on board are healthy and, despite erroneous reports, there are no known or suspected cases of coronavirus on board," it added.

Passenger Stephen Hansen confirmed to AFP that there was "no sickness on board".

He also believes Thailand's refusal to let Westerdam dock was "a political situation, not a health one".

Health authorities in Tonga have refused entry to three cruise liners -- CMV Astor, CMV Columbus and Crystal Serenity -- due to dock in the Pacific island nation on Wednesday.

A fourth passenger ship Wind Spirit, which had been set to arrive on Saturday, was also told to stay away.

The diversion notice did not say where the ships were headed but online trackers suggested the Astor was steaming towards Auckland, Columbus and Serenity were Fiji-bound and Wind Spirit was still near Tahiti.

Meanwhile Cunard's Queen Mary 2 luxury liner, currently off the coast of Malaysia, has been diverted to Freemantle in Western Australia, cancelling stops in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.