updated 3/20/2008 4:31:49 PM ET 2008-03-20T20:31:49

Tibet's fast-growing tourist industry will suffer a temporary setback from last week's Lhasa riot as authorities struggle to rehabilitate damaged infrastructure, an official said Wednesday.

China imposed a ban on tour groups last week and has not said when they would again be permitted, according to travel agents.

The ban was imposed amid protests that turned violent on Friday, when anti-Chinese mobs smashed and torched shops, homes, banks, government schools and offices, along with dozens of vehicles. The official Xinhua News Agency said more than 300 locations were set on fire.

Streets were strewn with debris and looted goods, with the historic Barkor commercial center among the hardest hit. The area's warren of streets and alleys lead to the Jokhang, Lhasa's 1,300-year-old Buddhist cathedral and a main draw for tourists and pilgrims.

"Tourism facilities ... have suffered considerable damages in the riot, lowering the reception capability," said Wang Songping, deputy director of the Tibetan tourism bureau,

"Of course, this would affect Tibet's tourism to a certain extent, but it's only temporary," Wang said.

Despite the setback, Wang said authorities were "very optimistic" of meeting a full-year target of 5.5 million domestic and foreign visitors this year _ more than double the size of the region's permanent population.

Tourism has skyrocketed in Tibet since the start of rail service two years ago, with the Himalayan region receiving 4 million visitors last year, up 60 percent from 2006. The crush of sightseers has forced authorities to limit visits to some sites, including the Potala, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

An agent with government-owned China Youth Travel Service said Tibet's tourism bureau had banned tour groups from traveling to the region starting on March 13 and forbidden tour buses or other vehicles from entering Lhasa.

He said authorities had not said when the ban would be lifted, but estimated it would last at least through the end of the month.

"No tour companies have been permitted to receive groups," said the agent, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to media.

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