updated 7/1/2009 12:43:06 PM ET 2009-07-01T16:43:06

Air China will begin offering direct flights from Beijing to Tibet this month, shaving two hours off the current travel time in a bid to boost tourism, state media said Wednesday.

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The official Xinhua News Agency said the new service to Tibet's capital of Lhasa will depart Beijing daily from July 10. Currently, all flights to Lhasa are routed through Chengdu, the capital of the southwestern China's Sichuan province.

Xinhua said the new service was designed to boost tourism in the Himalayan region. The industry took a major hit following the riots in March 2008 when Tibetans protesting Beijing's rule attacked Chinese migrants and torched much of Lhasa's commercial district.

Chinese officials say 22 people died, but Tibetans say many times more were killed in the March 14 violence, which sparked protests in Tibetan communities in Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.

Travel bans and a harsh government crackdown on Buddhist monasteries sent tourism plummeting, with arrivals in the first half of last year falling nearly 70 percent. Tibet was only fully reopened to foreign tourists on April 5.

Tibet's tourism administration in October urged travel agencies, tourist spots, hotels and transportation authorities to halve their prices.

China claims Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans say that the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries and that Beijing's tight control since the 1950s is draining them of their culture and identity.

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