The tourist season is on, but there is a dearth of qualified guides, especially those who could handle German and French tourists from Europe. The need of the hour is concrete steps to raise the number and quality of tour guides in Oman.
Oman, the emerging tourist destination in the region, is all set for another season and has just showcased its tourism products and potentials at the World Travel Market (WTM) London. The season would peak in the coming weeks and tourists would flow in from the European countries and from elsewhere. But who's there to guide them through the country's history, culture and traditions? The tourism industry in the Sultanate is in a frantic search for qualified guides.
They arrive in large numbers, in groups, alight from buses at prominent tourist spots in the Sultanate, from cruise liners that dock at Sultan Qaboos port, speak German, French or Italian, but look perplexed at whatever they encounter in this foreign land. They are here to experience and learn about the history, traditions and cultures alien to them and, like every other tourist in every other destination, they would want to take home sweet memories from a life-time visit.
But who's out there to tell them in the language they could comprehend about the castles that date back to 16th or 17th centuries, the remote villages that showcase rich traditions and ancient 'souqs' from where they could pick up valuable memorabilia? Or, who's out there to take them on an exhilarating tour through the beautiful coastline, wadis, mountains and deserts, to watch camels race, turtles nestle and dolphins dive? They say 'beauty has an address' in Oman, but who would address a vital issue that now plagues this popular tourist destination in the Middle East? The season is on. A strong Omani delegation, led by Ahmed bin Nasser al Mahrazi, the Minister of Tourism, was in London last week to attend the World Travel Market (WTM) and to attract more tourists from abroad. It's intended to 'confirm Oman's status as a regional and global tourist destination in the region by focusing on the promotion of its cultural, heritage and tourism potentials'. But back home, the industry is left without sufficient number of qualified tour guides, a crucial requirement of a 'global tourist destination'.
"We have a big shortage of tour guides, especially those who can speak German, French and Italian. We can count them on the fingers!" say all connected to the industry. Of course, the Ministry of Tourism now has plans to introduce free tour guiding courses for Omani nationals in Oman Tourism College, but the effort may not yield results in time, at least for this season.
Lack of support
There's a lack of proper support from the authorities concerned in improving the standards of guides or in getting more guides who speak foreign languages, says Masoud Al Yazeedi, an English speaking freelance tour guide, who is also an employee with the Civil Aviation department. "It's more than two years since they stopped the certificate course in tour guiding in Oman Tourism College and the existing short-term courses in tour guiding or in foreign languages are not adequate. We need intensive courses in German and French and Italian," he asserts.
Efforts from MoT
- Plans to meet the requirement by training Omani graduates in tour guiding; will soon implement an upgraded tour guiding course in Oman Tourism College.
- Conducts workshops for tour guides with speakers from OTC, SQU, the industry and world tour guidance federation.
- Launched a study to form a consortium of tour guides or a company which can source, train and supply guides to the industry.
- Permission for tour operators to recruit their own guides including from abroad through a common examination and interview held twice a year (in September and January)
However, the Ministry is in the process of designing a programme for training Omani graduates in tour guiding, says Badar Said Al Dhuhli, a lecturer in international tourism management at Oman Tourism College, who is also a member of the tour guiding licence committee with the Ministry and a freelance guide himself. "We hope to implement this course at the Oman Tourism College in three month's time," he points out.
There should be more similar efforts to get quality guides, he says. "Now we have an official committee which issues licenses after interviewing people. All they require is a minimum secondary school education, a medical fitness certificate, a no-objection certificate from the ROP and five years experience working with the industry or related industries. What we issue now are general licenses, but we need to introduce specialisation in tour guiding as per the requirements and itinerary of the tourists," Badar adds.
A company to supply guides?
Meanwhile, the ministry has already put forth a proposal to form a company which can source and supply tour guides. "It's a proposal which came out a few months ago. It could be a company which can train and qualify tour guides and provide them to operators under the Ministry's regulations. It's being studied and will help the industry a lot," says Masoud.
In a recent letter to the Minister of Tourism seeking a meeting to discuss issues related to Tourism Industry, the tour operators have, however, stated several reservations on the proposal. The main demand is on a uniform fee structure which wouldn't turn the destination more expensive, besides a guarantee on the competency of guides supplied and their commitment.
"We don't have a specific fee structure and the guides' payment is based on a mutual understanding," Masoud says. Usually, tour operators negotiate with the freelance guides, when they hire them and, if the guide provides his own car as transport, he is paid extra. Usually it's about RO 35 for half day and RO 50 for full day for English speaking guides while other foreign language speaking guides get more, around RO 65 -75, he adds. It's excellent payment, says Badar calling for more awareness among the Omani youth on the profession.
"The MoT has to conduct these awareness programmes. Of course, they conduct workshops and the last was last year in Oman Tourism College. It was part of Muscat Arab Tourism Capital activities which was attended by speakers from OTC, SQU and the World Tour Guidance Federation," he points out.
A common fee structure for guides acceptable to both the sides is one of the most essential and standard pre-requisite in many destinations, which unfortunately is missing in Oman, says a tour operator who preferred anonymity. "It's high time the authorities tackled this fundamental issue.
In some cases an accompanying guide and related expenses can be higher than any other component in a tour package, even more than the accommodation element. This quite often makes Oman a less competitive destination pricewise," he adds.Another option for the tour operators is to recruit their own foreign language speaking guides from abroad and get their temporary work permits once they clear the guide license test.
"It's a bit complex and time consuming. It would help us if there is a better coordination between the Ministry of Labour and the Ministry of Tourism and a time-bound procedure for approvals and licensing of temporary work permits," said another tour operator.
The ministry is doing a commendable job on tourism promotion, but it is sad that some very fundamental issues, such as ensuring sufficient number of tour guides are overlooked, he adds.
|Masoud Al Yazeedi|
Freelance tour guide
There's no organisation for tour guides. We have been trying to form one for the last eight years. Still we haven't got the approval from the ministry. We need it so that we can work under one umbrella and raise the standards.
|Badar Said Al Dhuhli|
Member, tour guiding license committee, Ministry of Tourism
We need permanent Omani guides and should encourage them to learn foreign languages such as French and German, which is our main market. The tourists look for local information which can only be provided by Omanis.