Cruise passengers disembarking in Nassau these days are greeted by tourism students and retired tourism staff members who are on hand at the piers to identify downtown attractions, give directions and answer questions on what to see, where to go and what to buy during their time in port.

Dubbed the Ask Me program, it is an expansion of a project begun a year ago at the Nassau airport to welcome visitors and assist them with customs and immigration forms, baggage, taxis and hotel directions, said Vernice Walkine, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.

"That was later broadened to include assistance to visitors in the departures hall and at gate areas," Walkine said.

The positive feedback for the airport program led to the launch of the Ask Me program last spring in partnership with the College of the Bahamas. A corps of 14 students and four recently retired tourism staff members, identified by bright green vests, roam downtown Nassau and can point the way to beaches, the buildings of Parliament or waterside restaurants.

Six ambassadors are on duty from 9 a.m. to noon on the peak cruise days of Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. The students, who are enrolled in a tourism studies curricula, earn credit toward their degrees.

"The ambassadors' program gives students an opportunity to gain experience in assisting visitors, and they in turn learn about the visitors: what they're most interested in seeing and experiencing," Walkine said.

The tourism ambassadors will be put to the test in terms of crowd control when Royal Caribbean's 5,400-passenger, 3,000-crew Oasis of the Seas arrives in Nassau on its maiden voyage on Dec. 11, the first of a number of similar-size ships steaming into Nassau in the near future.

Although tourism numbers to the Bahamas for the first six months of the year were down about 14%, cruise passenger numbers chalked up a 9.8% increase in the first half of the year, accounting for more than 70% of visitors to Nassau, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

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