SINGAPORE - As the global pandemic rages on, more locals have been heading to Singapore's Southern Islands for their dose of sea, sun and sand.
Some spots have proven particularly popular - since beaches in re-opened in June, average monthly visitorship to the St John's, Lazarus and Seringat islands, which are joined to each other, is up by 60 per cent compared to last year.
A spokesman from the Singapore Land Authority (SLA), which manages these islands, said: "We have observed an increase in visitors to St John's, Lazarus and Seringat Islands since the re-opening of beaches on June 19, with the number of visitors averaging about 10,800 per month.
"This is significantly higher than the average monthly visitor count of about 6,800 in 2019," the spokesman added, noting that SLA has sent officers down to remind people to observe safe distancing.
Ferry operators and yacht rental companies said that after the Covid-19 circuit breaker measures were eased, there has been strong demand from people looking for a quick getaway.
"We foresee that as long as the borders are closed, the (higher) demand will be there," said Mr Li Guoli, manager at Singapore Island Cruise and Ferry Services, which plies the route between Singapore's mainland and the Southern Islands. He said ridership is up by as much as 40 per cent compared to pre-pandemic levels.
In August, the ferry operator - which typically takes people to St John's and Kusu Islands - added a direct weekday service to St John's Island after it realised that it was a popular stop for guests heading to the beach at Lazarus Island.
Marina South Ferries, which picks up passengers from the mainland and stops at St John's, Kusu and Big Sister's islands, has meanwhile seen ridership go up by about 50 per cent compared to before the pandemic.
"Previously, our customers comprised mostly people who lived in Singapore but who were not born in Singapore - such as migrant workers and expats," said managing director Eric Wong.
"Now we see a lot more Singaporeans rediscovering Singapore and walking the road less travelled - most of them are first-timers to the Southern Islands."
He said they have added more ferries to meet the demand - during peak periods they have a boat leaving every 15 minutes - and have also increased the frequency of departures on weekdays.
The annual Kusu island pilgrimage season, which began on Saturday (Oct 17) and runs till Nov 14, will see more devotees flock to the island.
Devotees have to book a seat via SLA's online portal (the regular public ferry routes will not stop at Kusu Island). No more than 500 visitors will be allowed to travel to the island per day, and ferries heading there will have up to 50 passengers per hourly departure.
By Friday (Oct 16), slots for the first weekend (Oct 17 and 18) of the pilgrimage season had already been fully booked, and about 90 per cent of the slots for next weekend (Oct 24 and 25) had also been filled.
"As weekends are a popular period during Kusu pilgrimage season, visitors are advised to visit Kusu Island on weekdays," SLA's spokesman added.
Most yacht charter companies ST spoke to have seen more interest from people looking to explore the islands.
Over at Ximula Sail, enquiries have gone up by as much as 30 per cent. It offers, among other things, a four-hour yacht charter trip around the Southern Islands, dropping anchor at Lazarus Island.
"Before Covid, we would see a handful of families (at Lazarus) - it was almost like a private beach," said marketing assistant and crew member Vanessa Lim.
"Now it feels like Sentosa or East Coast Park... People are looking for alternatives to travel. A lot of people want to get out and do something more novel."
Yachtcruisesg, which offers guided tours in the waters around the more well-trodden Southern Islands as well as others such as Pulau Hantu, Pulau Jong and Pulau Semakau, has seen bookings double compared to before Covid.
Yacht rental platform Yachtly has also seen twice as many yacht bookings compared to before the pandemic, but due to the cap on the number of passengers, revenue is roughly the same, says partner Jacky Yeong. He said the Southern Islands route tends to be most popular, with many bookings even on weekdays, and growing interest in Pulau Hantu.
When ST visited St John's Island, many people were there for the first time. Student Joshua Lee, 18, who had gone fishing with his family on the causeway to Lazarus Island, said he enjoyed his visit.
"Singapore's coast looks really nice, but it's ruined by all the infrastructure. But here, it's not very developed, but very atmospheric. It's got a unique feel, even though it's still Singapore."