"Cambodia, we owe you a debt of gratitude": Westerdam ship passengers

Westerdam cruise ship passengers pose for photos at Sokha Hotel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Feb. 19, 2020 (Xinhua)
  • Xinhua
  • February 22, 2020 4:00 AM

PHNOM PENH -- For American passenger Bobbie Foldy and her husband, it was a shock when they learned that the Westerdam cruise ship, the vessel they were aboard, was denied entry to port by several countries and regions over novel coronavirus (COVID-19) fears.

The cruise liner, carrying a total of 1,455 passengers and 802 crew members, departed China's Hong Kong on Feb. 1, and had been turned away by Thailand and Japan among other countries due to concerns over the virus.

The ship had been stranded at sea for 13 days before Cambodia allowed it to dock off its southwestern port of Sihanoukville.

"When we knew that several ports had refused the ship's entry due to fears of COVID-19, we were extremely shocked," Foldy told Xinhua on Wednesday evening before taking a flight to her country.

"At that time, I think not only us, but also others were in panic mode," she said.

The resident of Connecticut said she had not slept well during the time that the ship was drifting at sea without a specific destination and what she could do was praying for any country to accept the ship docking.

"We had never met such a mishap before, so we were very concerned at that time, and this is one of the unforgettable events in our life," she said.

The Westerdam docked at the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on Feb. 13 following a permit from Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen and passengers were allowed to disembark a day later after 20 ill passengers had tested negative for COVID-19.

"We felt relieved and very excited when we heard that Cambodia accepted the ship docking," Foldy said. "We are extremely grateful to Cambodia for that and we are very satisfied with the Cambodia's hospitality."

"Thank you Cambodia for your generous help. We're owing you a debt of gratitude for that," she said.

Foldy said she would share this experience with her relatives and friends when she returned home.

"I'm going to tell them how generous and great Cambodian people are. They are very friendly, warm and open," she said. "I'm also going to tell them about the countries (and regions) that turned us away."

Another Westerdam passenger Elaine Gingrich, who came from U.S. state of Michigan, said she and her husband were thankful to Cambodia for the help and praised Cambodia for treating all guests very well.

"We will never forget Cambodia's kindness and the excellent hospitality the people here provided to us," she told Xinhua. "This is the first time we are in Cambodia, and we will consider Cambodia for our next holiday."

"We're going to tell everybody good things about Cambodia," she added.

Orlando Ashford, president of Holland America Line, the owner of the Westerdam, said on Wednesday that it would take the next couple of days to send all passengers back home through commercial flights.

"I'd like to express my sincere and heartfelt thanks to the Cambodian government, the prime minister and all the people of Cambodia for allowing our ship to dock, for a warm reception and for taking great care of my guests," he told Xinhua.

"Cambodia is really a wonderful place, and people here are really kind and friendly. I personally have an intention to come back to Cambodia again with my family so that I can have more time to explore and enjoy Cambodia's hospitality," he said.

Some 1,277 passengers and crew members had been allowed to disembark the ship on Feb. 14-16 after 20 ill passengers tested negative for COVID-19, and the disembarkation was then paused after a passenger who had left Cambodia had tested positive for the virus while transiting in Malaysia.

Malaysian health authorities identified her as an 83-year-old American. She is currently in stable condition, and her husband tested negative for the virus.

With this news, the Cambodian health authorities had conducted tests on all the remaining passengers and crew in Cambodia, including 980 (233 passengers and 747 crew) still being on board the ship, and the results showed that they were all "negative for the COVID-19".

Cambodian Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen said on Thursday afternoon that most of the passengers have flown home after they were all tested negative for the COVID-19.

"According to Health Minister Mam Bunheng, all people - both guests and crew - on board the ship have not infected with the COVID-19," he said in a speech at the Interior Ministry's annual conference.

"Until this hour, there is also not any Cambodian infected with the virus," he added.

Cambodian Transport Minister Sun Chanthol said the remaining 233 passengers disembarked the ship on Wednesday afternoon and traveled by buses to Phnom Penh, where they waited for their flights home, as the remaining 747 crew will be leaving with the ship on Feb. 22 to Manila, the Philippines.

Mam Veasna, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Tourism Department, who helped facilitate accommodations and flights for the passengers, said most of the passengers had left Cambodia for their respective countries.

"By Thursday evening, just over 200 passengers remain at the Sokha Hotel," he said. "Some of them will fly home tonight, and the others will leave by tomorrow night."

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