Tucked away among the rows of identical houses in the Lugu National Housing Scheme is a hidden oasis — a tiny freshwater lake which has quickly become the hotspot for Brunei’s latest water sports trend, stand-up paddle boarding.
On any given weekend, passers-by can see neighbourhood kids splashing around in the lake’s cool, turquoise waters, and a man in a floppy hat armed with an oar in his hand and his surf boards lined up by the shore.
New Zealand-born Stephen Officer picked up paddle-boarding just three years ago while he was on holiday.
“It was something that I became quite passionate about and I wanted to introduce it to Brunei,” he said. “There’s a small community of stand-up paddlers but nobody’s bringing in boards and nobody’s putting up lessons.”
Unlike surfing where the rider sits on a board until a wave comes, paddlers stand on their boards and use an oar to propel themselves through the water.
“It’s a great way to enjoy being out on the water and it’s a good work out too,” said the 48-year-old, who migrated to Brunei in 1994 to work as an engineer.
Stephen started giving paddle lessons at Tungku Beach about four months ago, and has built a strong following through his savvy use of GoPro videos shared on Facebook and Instagram. But it was his stunning footage of Lugu Lake and good word of mouth that really spiked interest in stand-up paddling.
“Lugu is not a huge lake and the waters are calm — it’s a great place for beginners,” he said. “Tungku Beach has some coves and sheltered bays, and on a good day you can spot turtles and dolphins, but the sea can get choppy when it’s windy.”
Stephen conducts lessons every Saturday and Sunday (when he’s not at his day job), with a 90-minute slot costing $40 per person. He said he gets up to six enquiries a day, with clients filling up slots from morning till afternoon.
“We usually organise group lessons of about eight people. I have another instructor joining me in November, because it’s tough running a one-man show.”
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The New Zealander added that the Lugu area definitely has tourism potential: “Aside from water sports, there is a ridge that goes all around [the lake] and we can have mountain bike trails and walking trails — the whole family can come here.”
“I’m meeting with the village head to see how we can get sponsorship to rebuild the jetty and walkway, and a floating pontoon, to make the area safer.”
The appeal of Lugu has also caught the attention of regional airlines AirAsia and Cebu Pacific, who have both contacted Stephen to do features on stand-up paddling for their in-flight magazines.
But once the initial hype of the sport has died down, can Brunei really be the next destination for water sports tourism?
“To develop water sports in Brunei, there needs to be an allocated beach for the public and tourists with commercial developments and water sports activities,” said Thye Sing Wong, managing director of Poni Divers.
Dive tourism is another niche area that the Ministry of Primary Resources and Tourism (MPRT) is keen to develop, believing the industry can attract up to 5,000 tourists a year and bring in millions of dollars.
On average, Brunei records around 1,400 divers a year, with 38 per cent from overseas. Foreign divers typically spend about B$1,500 per package and stay about six days.
“For Brunei to become an established diving destination, we will need more support to consistently market and promote the underwater wrecks and reefs through advertisements, social media, underwater photography and dive shows,” Thye said.
Brunei has over 60 dive sites and some of the most diverse marine life in the region. While the industry has generated a modest sum of $800,000 over the past seven years, Thye said any future growth must come with environmental responsibility.
“As the industry grows, there will also need to be regulations to keep diving practices safe and our underwater dive sites protected.”