Finally let off cruise, passengers desperate for flight home

Cruise passengers who thought their travel nightmare had ended when they were finally allowed to disembark in Cambodia are finding themselves in a new state of limbo

BANGKOK -- The cheers of celebration have faded. The waving of roses has ceased. Having finally reached a friendly port in Cambodia willing to accept them after nearly two weeks of uncertainty at sea, hundreds of cruise ship passengers eyed warily over fears of a new virus are now simply trying to find a way home.

“We’re in this sort of surreal world,” said Lydia Miller, 55, of Orcas Island, Washington, who is camped out at a hotel in the capital, Phnom Penh, waiting for word on how she and her husband might be able to return to the U.S. “It’s a weird feeling to travel and go on a trip and you don’t know when you can come home.”

The MS Westerdam arrived Feb. 13 in Cambodia after repeatedly being denied entry to other ports. The thrill of the moment, complete with a visit from the country’s prime minister greeting passengers with hugs and flowers, has now evaporated for those still facing a logistical nightmare to get home.

Travel options already limited by the number of airlines serving Cambodia have been narrowed by a growing list of countries denying entry to passengers who were aboard the Westerdam.

A diplomat working with the passengers in Phnom Penh said getting people home remains complicated by individual countries’ travel restrictions and a dearth of available flights. That was echoed by Holland America Line, which operates the Westerdam and which has been coordinating passengers’ flights.

“We showed up in a city unexpected and there’s only so many flights a night and we have a lot of people we’re trying to funnel through that system and we’re putting a lot of stress on that system,” Holland America’s president, Orlando Ashford, said by phone from Phnom Penh.

“It’s a math problem: How many people do you have? How many seats do you have?”

Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan are among those refusing to allow passengers in, making flying to Europe and the Americas difficult. Some airlines, such as Emirates, make a stop in Bangkok before proceeding to hubs such as Dubai, further limiting available flights.

Still, Ashford expressed hope that remaining passengers would be on their way home “in a couple of days.”

Miller and her husband changed their travel arrangements three times as Holland America repeatedly revised its itinerary when Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and the American territory of Guam refused to allow it to dock. They spent hours walking 10 miles around the ship each day, listening to podcasts, making their way through a stash of issues of The New Yorker that they toted along and perfecting their pingpong game. They have flights scheduled for Saturday via Seoul, but know they won’t be able to board them because the South Korean government would deny them entry.

When they finally disembarked the ship in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, Miller’s husband, John, was so grateful he sunk to his knees and pressed his hands together in gratitude and joy. Their fears of being stuck at sea were gone, and the couple decided to make the most of their time, meandering along the Mekong River, buying street food and otherwise relishing their time in the Cambodian capital.

After one passenger from the ship was found to have contracted the illness known as COVID-19, though, they were directed to report to a hotel where other passengers were gathered and they knew getting home might not be so simple.

“It was just this horrible gut feeling that everything changed in that moment,” she said.

Tony Martin-Vegue, whose wife, Christina Kerby, remains in Phnom Penh, began immediately preparing for her return home to California’s Bay Area once she got off the ship. He cleaned the house and, with the couple’s 10-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter, picked up flowers and a favorite local coffee and planned a party to welcome her home. Now he’s not sure when that might happen.

“It’s kind of limbo right now,” he said. “I’m worried about how she’s going to get home.”

Kerby has chronicled her time aboard the Westerdam, from a poolside yoga class to daily ice cream offerings to a towel-folding demonstration. She wrote of feeling “jubilation and relief” as the ship pulled into port and the “terrible and frightening” ordeal of “doctors in moon suits” poking a long swab up her nose to test her for the virus. The immediate joy of reaching land has given way to the realization she doesn’t know when she’ll return home.

“As the days go on I just feel like the probability of getting her home soon seems to be shrinking as the disease spreads and governments are continuing to react to it,” Martin-Vegue said. “This doesn’t have an outcome that’s around the corner.”

The Westerdam, with 2,257 passengers and crew aboard, began letting passengers off on Friday as they found flights home. But that was stopped once news broke that an 83-year-old American woman who had been on the ship and subsequently traveled to Malaysia was found to be carrying the virus. Some 255 passengers and 747 crew members were held on the ship while further testing was conducted.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Health said Wednesday that all the tests came back negative and that all passengers were reported to be healthy and fever-free. After that, remaining passengers were allowed off the ship.

They were taken to the same Phnom Penh hotel where others from the Westerdam milled around a sprawling lobby dotted with palm trees waiting for news on flights home. Two small American flags were set on a table with representatives from the U.S. Embassy; a big yellow kangaroo adorned a table for Australians. White boards announced news of flight arrangements and updates about new restrictions on which countries would allow passengers to pass through.

“We’re going to any country that will safely accept and transit and allow our guests to transition,” Ashford said.

Those who have already been on land for several days cautioned the newly disembarked guests to temper their expectations about reaching home soon.

The Millers, who run an inn at home, had saved up frequent flier miles for years for their trip and purposely picked a cruise itinerary with lots of time in port and fewer days simply sailing at sea. They were drawn by the thrill and uncertainty of travel, but now are just looking for the normalcy of routine, to share morning coffee at home, tend to their farm animals and talk to arriving guests.

“We love traveling and we love every day not knowing what’s going to happen and just being spontaneous,” Miller said. “But I’m longing for just the ordinary life right now of knowing what’s going to be the next day.”

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Associated Press writers Grant Peck in Bangkok and Sopheng Cheang in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, contributed to this report.