HONG KONG – Countries could continue to refuse to berth the Westerdam cruise ship carrying 2,257 people, citing unfounded fears of deadly COVID-19, until conditions on the luxury liner become so dire that it invokes an emergency.
The ship operated by Carnival Corp.’s Holland America Line could be forced to wait until it’s in distress — running out of water, food or fuel — before international law-of-the-sea conventions kick in and legally obligate the closest country to admit the vessel or provide help, according to maritime experts.
“The countries are all passing the buck until it lands in the lap of someone who has to take the ship because the ship’s run out of fuel or food,” said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor of transit geography at Hofstra University in New York. “When the ship is in distress, the nearest port of call will be bound in this case to help. That’s the law.”
Holland America said it’s working with authorities “to bring our guests into port as quickly as possible.”
Thailand on Tuesday became the fifth country or territory to deny the Westerdam access to its ports, according to the World Health Organization. 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. The ship’s operator has said it has no reason to believe there are any cases of coronavirus on board.
Under maritime law, countries can forbid entry to its ports for a number of reasons, including concerns of a health hazard, said Rodrigue. They are only obligated to help when ships are in need of assistance.
“They have the legal right to refuse entry as long as the refusal wouldn’t put those on the ship at harm,” said Rodrigue. “Right now, people are still well-fed. They’re on a cruise ship — it’s comfortable. They can say no and let it be someone else’s problem.”
Cruise ships have become a high-profile symbol of governments around the world struggling to contain the outbreak. The Diamond Princess and its 3,700 passengers are quarantined in the port of Yokohama as authorities battle an increasing number of infections onboard.
WHO said Thai officials have indicated that if the Westerdam 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 travelers were initially told Monday that they would be allowed to disembark in Thailand. Guests hustled to re-book flights home and everyone had their temperatures taken. By Tuesday morning, they learned 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 Hansen, who is traveling with his wife. “So we are back in limbo again.”
Hansen called on the governments of passengers’ home countries to seek a solution, saying medicine, food and other supplies would soon run short.
U.S. officials suggested at a press event Tuesday that authorities were re-evaluating the cruise ship quarantine strategy more broadly as more people get sick. Those remarks focused on the Diamond Princess, which has confirmed cases, unlike the Westerdam. The officials said they were concerned about elderly cruisers who may be more susceptible to complications.
“The increased cases count is making authorities really look critically at what is the safest thing,” said Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during a press event Tuesday in Washington.
In China’s Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, deaths and life-threatening respiratory complications have predominantly occurred in older people or those with pre-existing medical conditions, she noted.
The ship “is filled with people like that,” she said. “It’s a cruise ship with a lot of elderly individuals.” She didn’t specify exactly which new options are under consideration.
Rodrigue said cruise ships run on tight schedules and the Westerdam may not have lots of extra provisions, water and fuel on board for many more days beyond the scheduled end of this voyage, which was originally set for Feb. 15 in Yokohama.
“Ships are so synchronized and organized,” said Rodrigue. “When the ship finishes a cruise, it arrives at port in the morning, restocks everything in the afternoon and then they leave for another trip. This is well beyond any reasonable planning.”
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’s 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 Monday evening, the operator announced the ship was headed to Laem Chabang port — about 50 miles east of Bangkok — where passengers would disembark and end their journey on Feb. 13.
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, with 1,455 guests and 802 crew members.
Passengers on board have taken to social media after learning of being turned away by Thailand.
While passengers wait for news, 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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