Unwinding in Ubin: Marooned in Singapore, locals flock to island for kampung vibes and nature trails

As international travel is restricted, Pulau Ubin, with its rural kampung charm and nature trails, has drawn Singaporeans in droves.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - Pulau Ubin seafood restaurant Cheong Lian Yuen went from being worried about its future after the Covid-19 pandemic killed almost all visits to the island to now stressing over whether it can accommodate the number of people flocking there.

A feature on the island for more than 60 years, it has seen business triple since the end of the circuit breaker in June.

Mr Goh Jun Kang, 27, the third-generation owner, said: "When Covid-19 first hit, business was actually really bad. We had to close our shop for two to three months.

"But right now it is really full during the weekends, even on the weekdays."

With international travel restricted, the island has drawn Singaporeans in droves, especially now, with the school holidays in full swing.

And it is not just Pulau Ubin that is attracting visitors. The Southern Islands have also become an "overseas" hot spot as more in Singapore take to being tourists in their own country.

Visits to nature reserves, gardens and parks have seen a significant increase, the National Parks Board (NParks) told The Sunday Times.

At Ubin, with its rural kampung charm and nature trails, visitorship has spiked, with about 47,000 people travelling to the island last month, compared with the average of 25,000 visitors for past Novembers, NParks said.

Of the 50 people on the island whom The Sunday Times polled on Friday (Dec 11), 48 were not bothered by the number of visitors there.

They said community case numbers were low in Singapore and added that visitors were all donning masks as well.

Most people were observed to follow the rules, keeping their masks on, especially when in the town centre. Since it was the school holidays, there were many families with children.

However, groups of more than five did gather in some areas, such as at the information kiosk, to buy drinks from the vending machine.

The 15-minute bumboat ride from Changi Point Ferry Terminal to the island costs $4 each way.

Boats leave for Ubin from Changi Point Ferry Terminal every few minutes. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN
Pulau Ubin's visitorship has spiked, with about 47,000 people travelling to the island last month, compared with the average of 25,000 visitors for past Novembers. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

Weather permitting, business has been brisk, said a boatman who declined to be named. He currently makes an average of seven to eight boat trips with passengers on weekdays, and slightly above 10 on weekends.

Boats leave the Changi jetty every few minutes, each ferrying about 10 to 12 passengers.

At the Changi jetty, queue posts and markers remind people to keep a safe distance.

Mr Goh said his restaurant makes it a point to ensure people observe safe distancing rules. Diners are kept to five a table, with 1m spaces between the 13 tables.

"If there is a large group, we don't think we will accept their business. We will apologise to them, explain the situation and ask them to return in smaller groups... It is not worth the risk."

Shop owner Madam Ng, 70, who did not give her full name, lives on the island and makes a living by selling drinks and snacks.

She said that business has not only returned, but improved.

"When more people visit the place, we will get more customers," she said in Mandarin.

Engineer Jasbir Singh, 54, who visited the island on Friday for the second time in a week, said he wanted to experience its kampung vibe.

"I usually travel to the United States, but now with Covid-19 in full swing, it is a good chance for me to explore Singapore," he said.

Ms Cerline Yeo, 42, who works in the education sector, visited the island for the first time together with her family and friends.

"I'm not very worried about the crowds - the island is big enough to accommodate everyone, and we came on a weekday," she said.

Other than biking and walking to scenic spots like Chek Jawa, visitors have also been renting vans on the island for a quick ride to their destination.

Visitors to Pulau Ubin can make their way to spots like Jejawi Tower at Chek Jawa. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN
A wild boar near Chek Jawa. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

The operator of such a service, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ong, said there are at least 10 vans that visitors can book.

The 62-year-old, who has lived on the island for more than 10 years, said he moved there to enjoy a less stressful pace of life. He returns to the mainland once or twice a month.

He said he does not mind the higher footfall now.

"There are more people now but it is not a big deal. The island becomes quiet again at night when most leave."

Mr Tan Jiok Hang, 72, was visiting the island with his family.

"The air is fresher. I want to be in an environment that is different from the city," he said.

While he has travelled overseas several times, it was his first time on Ubin.

"I've always wanted to come here and finally got the chance to," he said.

ALSO READ: A different kind of staycation: Glamping overnight in Capitol Theatre now available