Image: Azrina Zin
Image: Azrina Zin

Sumbiling Eco Village (SEV), an eco-lodge located in the green jewel of Brunei has reopened after almost two months of closure, hoping to bank on domestic tourism to sustain its business and to support the indigenous community under their employment. 

Known for its ecotourism, the riverside village primarily employs members of the local Iban community that live in Kg Sumbiling Lama in Temburong, who according to Leslie Chiang, founder of SEV, have reverted to their old ways of foraging and farming to support themselves during this crisis. 

“It was our own decision to close the village because when reports of COVID-19 cases started to increase (in Brunei), we wanted to make sure first and foremost, that the community here was protected from the outbreak,” he said. 

Image: Azrina Zin
Image: Azrina Zin

On a regular day, the eco-lodge employs about 10 members from the village which consists of less than 50 people. This includes the village elder, Apai, which is a term of status in the Iban language, meaning father. 

However, during peak seasons, almost every member of the community is employed on a part-time basis to help manage big groups of visitors, taking on specific tasks such as ferrying visitors by boat or becoming nature guides. 

Since closing operations from March 13 up to April 30, SEV has had to cancel about 15 bookings which amounted to 200 visitors, subsequently having to turn down any bookings they received during the period which came almost every other day. 

Image: Azrina Zin
Image: Azrina Zin

“We could only employ about four people during this time at least to help maintain and guard the village. We have been working with the community for almost 12 years, and they were very understanding of the situation,” said Leslie. 

“They remained positive and said that they were going to be okay, choosing this time as an opportunity to take a break, happily going back to their traditional lifestyle of foraging wild herbs and farming fruits to earn money,” he added.

With more than 40 days of earning no income, Leslie, who is also the founder of Borneo Guide said that he had to resort to his own funds to finance the existing operating expenses, which included materials for maintenance and rent for their office space in Brunei-Muara. 

Image: Azrina Zin

As the travel ban continues, staggering the flow of foreign tourists, the SEV is hoping to attract more local tourists into the eco-village with its reopening, especially with the newly opened Temburong bridge linking the sultanate’s capital to the Temburong district. 

“Our campaign to aggressively market our services and products to local residents began at the end of last year because we were already anticipating an increase in demand, foreseeing the influx of people coming into the district due to the bridge,” he continued. 

Now the price for a night’s lodging, according to Leslie, inclusive of meals and a select number of activities is 60 percent lower for local residents, currently costing $80 per person compared to the previous $200. 

Image: Azrina Zin
Image: Azrina Zin

“Rightly so, when it opened, we have had non-stop enquiries through our social media and we’ve experienced quite a number of daily walk-ins as well, but unfortunately we were still closed during that time,” he added. 

Even with the excitement of SEV’s reopening, Leslie is aware that the COVID-19 situation in Brunei is far from over, thus the ecotourism destination has implemented a number of preventative measures that will ensure the safety of both the guests and the indigenous community. 

“The village can regularly accommodate about 20 guests at any given time, but we are limiting groups to around 10 people or even less,” he said, adding that guests will also be required to submit a copy of their IC and fill up a self-declaration form to report their medical status, among other things. 

Image: Azrina Zin

“This is to help the government in terms of contract tracing, should – knock on wood – an outbreak occurs. We will also be limiting the number of activities, to ensure that guests practice physical distancing with one another as well as the staff, and hand sanitisers will be readily provided,” he added. 

When asked whether he has any concerns for the near future, Leslie acknowledged how the price range – despite its significant drop – may not be agreeable to a number of local residents, however, he encouraged those in doubt to consider the wild and untouched nature that surrounds the village, and the indigenous communities that inhabit them. 

Image: Azrina Zin
Image: Azrina Zin

“What we provide here at SEV is a chance for guests to surround themselves with the beauty of Brunei’s centuries-old rainforests, and to discover the hidden experiences that can only be shown by those who have lived their lives within these rich landscapes,” he said. 

For those interested, they can learn more through the SEV Instagram @sumbilingecovillage or contact them at +673 8719616.

Image: Azrina Zin

This article was first published on May 30, 2020 in our Weekly E-Paper issue 91

The Bruneian | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN

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