‘We’re doing a training programme for guides, starting next week,’ Cruise Saudi Chief Commercial & Operations Officer Mark Robinson told Seatrade Cruise News in Jeddah this week. ‘There’s 768 official guides in the country, but they’ve never dealt with international tourists, so we’ve signed an agreement that the Ministry of Tourism is sponsoring and which we’re driving.
‘It will start with 50 guides in Jeddah who will go through an accreditation with us.’
The initiative utilises the collective insights of Robinson and Barbara Grabenweger, head of destination product development & shore excursions, Cruise Saudi who joined the organisation in the spring, together with the wider Cruise Saudi team.
It follows the recent successful training programme for students of King Abdulaziz University, Jeddah carried out on board MSC Cruises’ MSC Bellissima in Saudi Arabia. ‘We worked with King Abdulaziz University to bring 30 ambassadors studying travel and tourism and put them on MSC Bellissima,’ outlined Robinson. ‘As part of their course, they spent three months in front of house, customer services and dealing with passengers on board.
They loved working with all the different nationalities, they were amazed.’
Unlike crew members, the interns were permitted to disembark the vessel in order to visit destinations and — encouraged to meet with the ship’s management team every day — were empowered to provide feedback on the guest experience. ‘MSC [Cruises] were fantastic, they brought them on and they trained them,’ stated the industry veteran. ‘They met with the management team every day and highlighted any issues with the Saudi guests as well.’
Each member of the group — half women and half men — was presented with an award last week for their participation, before being invited to visit Cruise Saudi’s headquarters. ‘They were in tears,’ Robinson said, ‘and they produced a fun video of their time on board.’
Expanded shore excursions & strengthening local economies
In addition to investments in education — in a country where 70% of the population is under 30 — Cruise Saudi is seeking to expand the variety of excursions available to cruise passengers to include both historic sites and beach destinations. ‘We’ll do three or four different tours,’ explained Robinson. ‘AlUla is going to be the big programme: we’ll do a basic tour that will go to Hegra and drop people at the Old Town. Then there will be another one, which will be the full experience. We’ll go to a local farm, fruit picking, have lunch at the farm… we’ve found some great places.’
With 800 the maximum number of tourists permitted to enter AlUla at any one [‘to keep the site pristine,’ according to Robinson] Cruise Saudi is working on beach trips plus activities based in the desert. ‘In Yanbu, for people who don’t go to AlUla, we’re creating a desert camp, [plus] a private beach experience, then small cultural tours,’ Robinson said.
In one part of Yanbu, Cruise Saudi is aiming to reactivate a historic market place and trading post where mysterious ruins remain. So ‘It needs a lot of work but it’s authentic. We’re saying: reactivate the market because it might help the villagers.’
A further idea being discussed by Cruise Saudi is the chance to offer religious tours open to international passengers that will visit Medina.
Regardless of what will become available in the near future, Robinson is excited for cruise passengers to be able to encounter Saudi Arabia's rich culture and landscape. Concluded the man with 33 years' experience in the cruise, leisure and travel industry: 'Take a seven-day itinerary from Egypt: you can see pyramids, then Aqaba in Jordan, then do two Saudi ports on the way back.
'The more people we can bring, and word of mouth [the better]... It’s about getting the information across.’