After nearly two weeks cast away in search of any port that would take them, passengers aboard the cruise ship MS Westerdam spoke of an ordeal that was anything but harrowing.
“Everyone says ‘poor you’. But there was no poor you. We had free internet and free wine. We had three-course meals. There was so much choice,” said Zahra Jennings, a retired nurse from Britain.
How was it? “Lovely,” she said.
The 1,544 passengers and 802 crew had never expected a port stop in Hong Kong to metastasise into full-blown fear that some of the ship’s passengers carried the coronavirus that has killed more than 1,500 people.
Turned away by Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand, it was Cambodia that finally let the lost ship dock – and it was discovered there that none of the passengers was infected.
The only complaint aboard? “They ran out of hash browns a couple of days ago, and tomato sauce,” said Robert Sayers, a 60-year-old chemical company employee from New Zealand. “But that was it. It was fine, really.”
Cruise ships around Asia face widespread fears they may be spreading the virus since it was found aboard the Diamond Princess that is now at anchor in Yokohama and where 218 passengers have been diagnosed with the virus.
Vietnam turned back two ships on Friday.
It was Valentine’s Day when the first passengers disembarked from the Westerdam. Prime Minister Hun Sen, flew in from Phnom Penh, shaking hands with passengers and handing out roses. Government officials draped “Welcome to Cambodia” banners on buses. All passengers were given free visas.
“Our current disease around the world is fear and discrimination,” said Hun Sen. “If Cambodia didn’t allow this ship to dock, where should these 2,000 passengers go?”
Holland America sent letters to all passengers saying it would reimburse the cost of the cruise, give them another free 14-day cruise, and charter flights home for them. The company, it said, would do its best to match the class of flight they had originally booked.
US President Donald Trump has thanked Cambodia for taking in the castaway cruise ship in a rare message to a country that is one of China’s closest allies and has often been at odds with Washington.
“Thank you to the beautiful country of Cambodia for accepting the @CarnivalCruise ship Westerdam into your port. The United States will remember your courtesy,” Trump said in a post on Twitter late on Friday.
The cruise had been scheduled to end in Shanghai on Saturday. In Shanghai it was 14 Celsius, overcast and raining. In Sihanoukville, it was 27C and sunny.
Holland America arranged free coaches to a nearby beach for the stranded passengers, across the street from the villa where Hun Sen stays in Sihanoukville and surrounded by Chinese casinos.
“This was my best cruise ever,” said retired Canadian aerospace engineer Pierre Ashby. “Usually you buy a cruise and you know exactly what you are going to get. This was an adventure.”
His wife was sitting beside him in a yellow bathing suit with two red roses. Barefoot in the sand, he smiled and gestured out to sea.