Mark Rowe on the attempt to revive a depressed industrial area

Just how far can tourism help to rejuvenate economically depressed areas?

The former coal mining communities of South Wales may be about to find out. The collapse of heavy industry and the mine closures of the late 1960s and 1980s left the region on its knees. Now the region, collectively known as the Heads of the Valleys, has turned to tourism as a way to improve its economic and social fortunes.

The Heads of the Valleys are defined by the A465, which runs across the heads of the old mining valleys from Abergavenny in the east to Merthyr Tydfil and then Neath to the west. To the south of the road, the landscape is intensely industrial; to the north, open countryside and dramatic scenery beckon in the shape of the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountains.

This year, funding by the Government and the Welsh Assembly has been directed to the five local authorities in the valleys. The intention is to create 300 new jobs, with local people working as guides and attractions run by community organisations, such as the Grade II-Listed Ynysfach Engine House in Merthyr Tydfil.

The hope is to attract 250,000 more visitors, and develop tourism into an industry worth more than £120m to the region. This is part of a wider, 15-year, £140m regeneration plan for the former industrial heartlands. The ultimate aim, according to the Welsh Assembly, is to transform the region by 2020 into "a culturally rich, dynamic network of vibrant and safe communities".

Tourism is already an important player locally, and brings in 2.6 million visitors and £114m a year, usually to high-profile areas such as the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Big Pit National Coal Museum at Blaenafon. The new initiatives intend to highlight other industrial, cultural and social heritage attractions, along with extreme sports, and extend the network of cycle trails. The developments are initially targeted at day visitors, with the intention to build up a critical mass of good-quality hotels and restaurants so that visitors will be encouraged to stay and explore the wider region.

The projects are various, and include a £5.4m initiative to restore and upgrade the Grade II-listed Bedwellty House and Park in Tredegar, a former ironmaster's residence in Blaenau Gwent. Elsewhere, in Caerphilly, a £3.68m project will create a garden based on the theme of the environment and climate change at the former Markham Colliery, along with a heritage trail in Butetown.

In the 500-acre Dare Valley Country Park in Rhondda Cynon Taf, £1m will be spent on a redeveloped visitor centre, including a glass atrium to take advantage of the panoramic views. Another £1m project will fund the extension of the Pontypool and Blaenafon Railway southwards.

There is also a recognition that the region's natural beauty and its historical importance have been underplayed. There are 17 Sites of Special Scientific Interest in the region and 12 Special Areas of Conservation, while about 35 per cent of the area can be described as broadly upland in character. Just 3 per cent of the region is under buildings and roads.

However, good accommodation and food outlets are far from commonplace, something officials recognise needs to be addressed. "We are working to encourage them to improve," said a spokeswoman for the Welsh Assembly Government. "It makes economic sense to do so. We firmly believe that tourism is one of the vehicles that can tackle economic regeneration in the area."

The plans have been welcomed by tour operator and tourism industry spokesman John Wake. "It's such a diverse area. One day you can have the full industrial experience and the next be walking in Brecon Beacons," he said. "It involves a culture shock for outsiders, but it's a positive one."

But planning is essential. "Any money coming into this area is good," added Mr Wake. "But you need to lay the foundations of the tourism industry first. If you want people to explore the area they need to stay in the region – if they end up staying in Cardiff that defeats the point."