Preah Sihanouk Provincial authorities have met to begin planning for the arrival of the US cruise ship MS Westerdam, which is slated to arrive at the Sihanoukville port on December 28. 

The occasion will also serve as a celebration of the three-year anniversary of one of the Kingdom’s defining moments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Provincial deputy governor Long Dimanche explained how three years ago the government led by then-Prime Minister Hun Sen allowed the cruise liner, carrying thousands of tourists, to dock at the port, and for the passengers to fly home to their respective countries. 

At the time, the vessel had been refused permission to make landfall in many countries, due to fears of a Covid-19 outbreak. 

Hun Sen’s gesture made international headlines. Many, Dimanche said, referred to Cambodia as “a small country with a big heart”.

“Because of such an act of generosity by Cambodia, the liner will return to the Kingdom again, demonstrating that Cambodia, especially Preah Sihanouk province, is an attractive tourist destination with strong investment potential after the Covid-19 crisis,” he said.

He added that the ship is expected to dock at the port at 8am on December 28, bringing more than 1,500 tourists.

He said that some of the guests will travel to Koh Rong beach, while some may go on to Phnom Penh or take the opportunity to visit the world-famous temples within the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap province.

“Of the 1,500 or so arrivals, about 900 will depart on the ship. The provincial authorities have been preparing to welcome these tourists, as well as commemorate the three-year anniversary of the ship’s docking in 2020,” he added.

He noted that the authorities are prepared to guarantee the safety and security of the guests, and are focused on keeping the environment clean, as well as hanging decorations, as the New Year approaches. In addition, they are also planning an exhibition of the images, videos and news stories that were published by major international media outlets at the time of the 2020 docking. The exhibition will be open to tourists and all members of the general public.

Thuon Sinan, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Cambodia Chapter, welcomes the return of the MS Westerdam.

He highlighted that despite its historical significance, this is not the only liner that the Kingdom has welcomed in 2023.

He suggested that the government encourage more cruise ships to dock in Cambodia because the Kingdom’s tourism development remains fragile, with strong regional competition.

“Instead of just preparing a large presentation for this vessel, the authorities should develop strategies to attract more cruise ships. This is especially important as the ports of neighbouring Kep and Koh Kong provinces will also be operational soon,” said.

The MS Westerdam, with more than 2,200 tourists and multinational crew aboard, docked at Sihanoukville Autonomous Port on the morning of February 13, 2020, after obtaining permission from the Cambodian government. 

After the vessel docked, Hun Sen personally greeted the guests as they disembarked from the ship on February 14, Valentine’s Day, presenting them with roses and welcoming them to the Kingdom. He explained that the decision to allow the ship to dock was a humanitarian one.

He said he wanted to eliminate the climate of fear that was prevailing in the world at the time, and would brook no discrimination.