Coronavirus: Cruise ship rejected by five ports runs out of options

In this picture taken on Feb 27, 2019, the Westerdam cruise ship is moored at Incheon, South Korea. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - The 2,257 passengers and crew aboard the Westerdam luxury liner are in limbo once again after Thailand became the latest country to turn the ship away from its ports, leaving guests desperate to disembark after almost two weeks at sea.

Fearing that some passengers on the Westerdam may be infected with the deadly new coronavirus, Thailand's Public Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul announced on Tuesday (Feb 11) in a Facebook post that he has directed the authorities not to let them disembark.

The statement was confirmed by other Thai officials. The ship's operator has said it has no reason to believe there are any cases of coronavirus infection on board.

The World Health Organisation seemed to offer a ray of hope - saying that health authorities may try to board the ship to assess the passengers' health to see whether they may be allowed to get off the ship in Thailand.

Operated by Holland America Line, a brand owned by Miami-based cruise giant Carnival, the ship has been refused entry by five countries or territories, according to the WHO. Ports in Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines and Guam have also sent it away on concerns over the virus, which has killed more than 1,000 people since it was first reported late last year in Wuhan, China.

The refusal and quarantine of cruise ships are the latest stepped-up measures by governments around the world struggling to contain the outbreak.

Carnival's Diamond Princess and its 3,700 passengers are quarantined in the port of Yokohama, Japan, as the authorities battle an increasing number of infections on board.

The WHO said Thai officials have indicated that if the ship enters the country's waters, "authorities may seek to board the ship to determine the health status of passengers and crew, to determine whether they would be allowed to eventually disembark in Thailand", according to a statement.

The ship is currently off the southern coast of Vietnam, according to the WHO and Bloomberg data.

On board the Westerdam, passenger Stephen Hansen said he was relieved when travellers were initially told Monday that they would be allowed to disembark in Thailand. Guests scrambled to rebook flights home and everyone had their temperatures taken. By the next morning, they learnt from media reports that Thailand had refused the ship.

"To have that snatched away at the last minute with no other solution at hand was very upsetting," said Mr Hansen, who is travelling with his wife. "So we are back in limbo again."

He called on the governments of passengers' home countries to seek a solution, saying medicine, food and other supplies would soon run short. Others on the Westerdam took to social media after learning about Thailand's refusal.

The cruise ship operator hasn't had much news to offer passengers.

"We are actively working this matter and will provide an update when we are able," Holland America Line said, adding it is aware of the reports about Thailand's refusal. "We know this is confusing for our guests and their families and we greatly appreciate their patience."

In a blog post on Monday evening, the operator announced the ship was headed to Laem Chabang port - about 80km east of Bangkok - where passengers would disembark and end their journey on Thursday.

The ship's plight is adding to Carnival's woes sparked by the virus.

The Westerdam departed Hong Kong on Feb 1 on a 14-day Taiwan and Japan cruise. The 1,455 guests, travelling with 802 crew members, were originally scheduled to disembark at Yokohama on Saturday, according to blog posts on Holland America Line's website.

The ship has sufficient fuel and food provisions to last until the end of the voyage, according to an earlier Holland America Line blog post on its website.

While passengers wait for news, one of them, Ms Christina Kerby, said she's been killing time learning how to fold bath towels into decorative shapes. The Northern California resident kept her posts upbeat and humorous.

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