They threw their hands in the air, hit the ground in prayer and waved signs reading “Thank you Cambodia.”
Early Friday, the 1,455 passengers of the Holland America’s MS Westerdam stepped on land for the first time after nearly two weeks at sea. The luxury liner had been denied entry to its planned stops in Asia amid escalating fear over the spread of coronavirus, now known as covid-19.
Despite Holland America’s repeated assurances that there were no known or suspected cases of the virus on board, the ship was refused entry at five ports across East and Southeast Asia. The Westerdam became a cruise to nowhere.
Finally, on Wednesday, Cambodian officials agreed to allow the Westerdam to dock at the port of Sihanoukville on the country’s southwestern coast. The first group of disembarking passengers were greeted by Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, who arrived by helicopter.
“If Cambodia did not allow this ship to dock here, where should this ship go?” he said, according to the Associated Press. “I want to inform Cambodians and the world that I coming here even for a short time means this is no time for discrimination and to be scared, but a time for everyone to be in solidarity to solve the problems we are facing now.”
Holland America thanked the country for its “willingness to welcome us with an open mind and make decisions based on facts.”
For Christina Kerby, a 41-year-old passenger whose Twitter account became a “live, public diary of the unexpectedly adventurous cruise,” the end was bittersweet.
“Is it strange to say in some ways I’ll miss life aboard the Westerdam?” she wrote The Washington Post. “The staff and crew have made the journey memorable through their warmth and hospitality. I asked a crew member tonight how he was able to stay so upbeat and he said (I’m paraphrasing) it is because Holland America treat us like family, so we reflect that back on the passengers. So I’ll definitely be leaving a little part of me behind on the ship when I leave tomorrow.”
The cruise ship hoped to have all passengers off the ship by Sunday, Erik Elvejord, Holland America’s public relations director, told USA Today.
As passengers stepped on land again, they praised their hosts.
“How wonderful it is to be here. Thank you very much to the prime minister. He has a wonderful heart,” said Anna Marie Melon, from Queensland, Australia, the AP reported. “I’m very excited [to be here]."
Hun Sen told passengers that “although Cambodia is a poor country, Cambodia has always joined the international community to solve the problems that the world and our region are facing."
The Westerdam’s plight also elicited a tweet from the President Trump, who said the United States would remember Cambodia’s courtesy.
Kerby said she would spend a day in Phnom Penh before flying out Sunday morning, but couldn’t wait to get home to see her husband and children. She also reflected on going back to the real world.
“I can’t imagine going back to my normal life next week,” she wrote. “Is there a job where I can just parachute into crisis environments and post funny tweets?”