Student project promotes ecotourism in Ehmej with cultural trail

Jennifer Muller <jm26@aub.edu.lb>, Office of Communciations

Nestled in the mountains east of Jbeil on the road to Laklouk, the municipality of Ehmej​—like so many villages across Lebanon—contains cultural and historical treasures along with unsurpassed natural beauty. A group of students in the USAID University Scho​larship Program (USP) took it upon themselves to create a nature trail linking these little-known cultural and historical gems in order to promote Ehmej and contribute to ecotourism efforts in the area.

As part of their requirements for the USP scholarship program, which is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), students must complete a service project aimed at helping their loc​al community. A group of nine USP scholars chose to focus on tourism in Ehmej as the best way ​to improve the economy and social life in the community. “We aren’t going to wait around for the government to make this happen,” said Maroun Ramia, the team leader. “We are making it happen.”

The cultural trail was inaugurated on September 22 with a group of around 50 AUB students who signed up for the day-long outing. Among these were current USP students, students from the MEPI-Tomorrow’s Leaders and Al Ghurair STEM Scholars programs, among others. Dr. Malek Tabbal, director of USAID-USP at AUB and an Ehmej municipality official helped open the trail and planted a tree to commemorate the occasion.

Walking the Wadi el Neznezi Trail

The trail begins at a 400-year-old church in the center of Ehmej, Saidet el Chir (Our Lady of the Rock), and descends into the valley of Ain el Dayaa, eventually leading to Haklet el Hayat which boasts the remains of old houses made of large stone blocks and the vestiges of a mill.  Continuing up and out of the valley, the trail passes stands of old oak trees and climbs up to the rocky outcrop of Kornet el Raheb where there are ruins indicating it may have been a hermit’s dwelling as well as a military post for a Roman garrison. 

The trail then follows the path of an old Roman road that once led from Jbeil (Byblos) to Baalbek (Heliopolis), crossing the Fidar River Valley and passing through Ehmej. Also in this area, some Phoenician stone carvings were discovered when the highway was being built, which prompted the road builders to divert the highway around these curios left by the ancient Phoenicians. From there, the trail climbs towards Wadi el Neznezi, offering stunning views over the valley and ends in Arz Ehmej, an outdoor recreation facility and restaurant, which is another project that was previously funded by USAID. 

A team effort

The USAID-USP program is for Lebanese students from public high schools with financial needs, which focuses not only on education but also building leadership skills and producing civic-minded graduates. Hailing from Ehmej and nearby areas, this group worked for over one-and-a-half years to plan and finalize their project. Coming from different majors and different backgrounds, the group divided the tasks based on their various talents, from writing the proposal and budget to mapping the trail and working with the local community.

The team partnered with the municipality, spoke with long-time residents to identify cultural and historical areas of interest, worked with a cartographer to map the trails, and contracted with designers and suppliers to produce trail signs and a brochure. In order to create a truly sustainable project, the team also held a workshop for local youth, giving them leadership training and raising their awareness about ecotourism and the history of their village so that these young people can serve as guides along the trails. Throughout the process, the students were supported by staff members at AUB’s Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service.

The team experienced numerous difficulties along the way, including suppliers who failed to meet deadlines, but they persisted and finished the project even after their graduation.  “First of all, the team were thinking about this project as a requirement and then they went to Ehmej and walked with a cartographer to learn how to draw a map for these trails,” explained Ramia, “and from this time they became committed to this project; not just because it is a requirement, but because they enjoyed the project.”

In addition to the Wadi el Neznezi Trail, there is another trail linking Arz Ehmej to Laklouk—the Al Tellej Trail—which is excellent for snowshoeing during winter. Although these trails are mapped and marked, engaging a local guide is highly recommended and can be arranged through the visitor center in Arz Ehmej or by contacting Imane Khalifé, director of ecotourism efforts in Ehmej.