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The new Garwnant Visitor Centre symbolises the Welsh Assembly Government's hopes for the future of Wales, Rural Affairs Minister Elin Jones said yesterday (Thursday, July 8).
Ms Jones hailed the importance of the centre, situated at the southern gateway to the Brecon Beacons National Park, when she officially opened the new building following extensive refurbishment.
The Forestry Commission Wales managed-centre and surrounding woodlands, just five miles from Merthyr Tydfil, had a vital role to play in bringing economic prosperity and jobs to south Wales, Ms Jones said.
More than 120,000 people were drawn to the walking and cycling trails which meander into the woodlands last year, even though the centre was closed for most of that time.
"It is estimated that Garwnant is accessible to 1.8 million people within an hour's drive. The excellent road links mean that people can quickly escape the urban lifestyle and enjoy the wonderful health benefits the forest can offer," Ms Jones told civic dignitaries and community representatives.
She said the centre was a jewel in the crown for Wales which would have an important role in promoting tourism in line with the Assembly Government's One Wales agenda.
"This centre contributes towards the One Wales vision and the Assembly Government's aspirations for the future of Wales," said Ms Jones.
"Tourism is vital to economic prosperity and job creation in many parts of Wales and should therefore be developed across Wales on a regional basis in order to make the most of local resources and assets.
"As the tourism industry moves increasingly towards shorter and more activity-based breaks, it is highly likely that places like Garwnant will become a favourite choice, with its wide variety of facilities set within a beautiful environment."
The centre was closed for three years while Forestry Commission Wales revamped the facilities with the help of public and private investment and support from the Heads of the Valleys Strategic Regeneration programme.
The new-look complex includes an information centre, an education/conference hall and a restaurant and cafe serving local food run by local company, Just Perfect Catering.
Despite its forest location, the centre is among the most disabled-friendly buildings in the UK thanks to Tredegar-based Mountway Limited, who donated over £16,000 worth of special equipment.
Outside, the mountain bike and walking trails have been upgraded and include an all-ability walking trail. There is also a bike park, an adventure play area and an animal puzzle trail.
Ms Jones said, "It is vital that facilities such as these enable all visitors to connect with the outdoors in a fun and safe environment, and it is clear this visitor centre offers access to the countryside for all.
"The extension of the all-ability trail has opened up more of the forest to less able users and further improvements to the infrastructure has meant many more people will be able to benefit and, hopefully, tell others about their experiences."
Such facilities supported the development of the leisure industry in Wales and generated a wider economic return to local areas, as well as raising awareness of the benefits of trees, woodlands and forests.
"By building active, stronger and sustainable communities through the provision of facilities such as these we will strengthen the culture where people understand, appreciate, enjoy and want to be involved in their local woodlands, regardless of their ability or age."
Ms Jones praised the partnership working which had made the re-development possible and said the benefits would spread far and wide.
"One Wales aims to help people to lead healthier lifestyles as a result of their use and enjoyment of woodlands, which can improve our quality of life and provide a wholesome sense of mental, physical and emotional well-being.
"I'm sure that, with its new and improved facilities, Garwnant can expect a busy year ahead."
NOTES TO EDITORS
About 14% of Wales is covered by woodlands. Of this, 38% (126,000 hectares/311,000 acres) is owned by the Welsh Assembly Government.
Forestry Commission Wales is the Welsh Assembly Government’s department of forestry and manages these woodlands on its behalf.
Forestry Commission Wales is also part of Forestry Commission GB and contributes to the international forestry agenda.
For more information on Garwnant Visitor Centre, contact Visitor Centre Manager Sam Detheridge on 07789 747127.
More information on the woodlands of Wales is available on www.forestry.gov.uk/wales
Medai enquiries to Forestry Commission Wales Information Officer Clive Davies on 0300 068 0061, mobile 07788 190922.