Passengers of a cruise ship that had been turned away from at least five ports in Asia over coronavirus fears began disembarking in Cambodia and heading home on Friday.
The Westerdam, carrying 1,455 passengers and 802 crew, docked at the southwestern port of Sihanoukville on Thursday after the Cambodian government allowed the ship to enter the port on humanitarian grounds.
A total 405 passengers stepped off the ship, with each being greeted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was not wearing a facemask.
"Welcome to Cambodia. You no longer have anything to worry about. I want you to stay in the country for days or even months," he said.
One grateful passenger from New Jersey voiced her relief at finally setting foot on solid ground, saying "Thank you, Cambodia!"
The passengers were bussed to the local airport, where they boarded two charter flights to the capital Phnom Penh for connecting flights home or one to Kuala Lumpur.
(Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) welcomes passengers of the Westerdam cruise ship at the port of Sihanoukville)
Due to the large number of passengers involved, the entire disembarkation process is expected to take at least three days to complete, according to a local government official.
It was not immediately known whether any of the five Japanese -- four passengers and one crew member -- aboard were among those who disembarked Friday.
Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said Friday that all five are in good health, adding that officials from the Japanese Embassy have made contact with them and are providing assistance.
Hun Sen said Cambodia is committed to doing its best to help all aboard the ship. "If Cambodia did not accept them, where would they go? As a member of the world community, we must be responsible," he said.
He added that the passengers are allowed to freely go ashore and travel to other parts of Cambodia before departing the country.
Samples collected Thursday from 20 passengers who had been ill all tested negative for the new strain of coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19.
The ship departed Hong Kong on Feb. 1 for a 14-day cruise that was to end in Japan. However, the Japanese government denied entry based on suspicions that one of the passengers was infected with the virus.
The ship was subsequently turned away by Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam and Thailand over similar fears.
The ship's operator, U.S.-based Holland America Line, repeatedly stated that there were no suspected cases of virus infection on board.
Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus on cruise ships have mounted since many people were found infected aboard the Diamond Princess, which is currently quarantined in Japan.
To date, one coronavirus case has been confirmed in Cambodia, in a Chinese man. After recovering from the COVID-19 illness, he recently returned home from Sihanoukville.