By Prak Chan Thul
SIHANOUKVILLE, Cambodia (Reuters) - Cambodians voiced unease on Thursday at the arrival of a cruise ship that has been turned away by five countries in fear of the new coronavirus - despite having no suspected cases onboard.
In fact, the port of Sihanoukville, a major Chinese gambling centre where some 1,455 passengers from the MS Westerdam were due to disembark after two weeks at sea is the only place in Cambodia to have recorded a case of the virus so far.
"Don't they understand the wellbeing of people in Sihanoukville?" asked food vendor Siv Muoy. "Even though they said there is no infection, we are still worried because five countries rejected the ship."
The enforced wandering of a ship full of people who aren't suspected to have the virus has highlighted the level of fear in the region over the new form of flu that has killed more than 1,300 people, almost all of them in China.
Cambodia's agreement to accept the ship after it was turned back from Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines and Thailand was welcomed by the World Health Organization - rare foreign praise for a country more often accused of human rights abuses.
"I don’t understand why the government allowed this ship to dock," complained 32-year-old Sihanoukville taxi driver Siek Pros.
Preah Sihanouk governor Kuoch Chamroeun declined to comment when asked about the concerns of people in Sihanoukville.
Cambodian authorities are due to carry out health checks for the presence of the coronavirus before passengers are allowed to leave the Westerdam. The ship also has 802 crew.
Buses will take passengers to Sihanoukville's international airport as the next step on their homeward journeys.
It is unclear how much time they will get to spend in Sihanoukville.
"Imagine the relief you'd feel upon hearing that you're finally going to be allowed to set foot on land after weeks at sea...then imagine the feeling when you disembark at the Sihanoukville port and see the land in question," tweeted Lina Goldberg, author of Move to Cambodia.
Sihanoukville, which has Cambodia’s only deep-water port, was carved out of the jungle in the 1960s and named after former King Norodom Sihanouk.
Once a playground for Cambodia's elite, it fell on hard times during the Khmer Rouge genocide and conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a tranquil - if somewhat down-at-heel - stop for backpackers and other Westerners.
In recent years it has been transformed. Dozens of towering hotels and casinos sprang up with Chinese investment until a ban on online gambling last year led to an exodus of tens of thousands of Chinese. Many building sites were abandoned.
Provincial authorities reported last year that more than 90 percent of businesses in the city were Chinese owned.
The first case of the coronavirus in Cambodia was discovered a Sihanoukville. The patient, a 60-year-old Chinese man from the epicentre of the virus in Wuhan, made a full recovery.
Passengers on board the Westerdam have been subjected to regular health checks, according to Holland America, the ship operator and a unit of Miami-based Carnival Corp.
Stoking fears in countries on the ship's route has been the quarantine in Japan of the Diamond Princess cruise ship, also managed by a unit of Carnival Corp. Of the 3,700 on that vessel, 175 tested positive for the virus.
(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Neil Fullick)