updated 9/9/2009 1:51:37 PM ET 2009-09-09T17:51:37

Tourist arrivals in the volatile western region of Xinjiang have plummeted since July's deadly ethnic rioting, Chinese state media say.

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Thousands of tour groups have canceled trips and the number of visitors to the region's main tourist sites has fallen from several thousand per day to just a few hundred, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday.

Formerly packed hotels now fill barely 10 percent of their rooms, Xinhua said, citing the head of the regional tourism bureau, Yinamu Nesirdin.

According to the regional government, about 17 million foreign and domestic tourists visited Xinjiang in 2006, the last year for which figures were available, bringing in 15 billion yuan ($2 billion) in revenue.

Calls to the tourism bureau rang unanswered Wednesday.

Tensions soared in the region following the rioting that broke out July 5 between members of Xinjiang's native Muslim Uighur ethnic group and China's majority Han, leaving 197 dead, according to the government. A string of bizarre hypodermic needle attacks on Han residents sparked street protests last week in which authorities say five people were killed.

Xinhua said the regional government has budgeted 5 million yuan ($700,000) to subsidize travel agencies that bring tour groups to Xinjiang and is planning a series of festivals and promotional events to help draw in visitors.

China responded to the unrest by flooding Urumqi with paramilitary police who stand guard at all major intersections and block entrances to Uighur neighborhoods to discourage vigilante attacks by Han who dominate the city's population of 2.5 million.

Officials have blamed the rioting and the needle attacks on Uighur separatists whom they have vowed to crush. Hoping to ease public anger, Beijing on Saturday removed Urumqi's Communist Party boss and Xinjiang's police chief.

Deadly rioting among Tibetans last year prompted China to close the Himalayan region to visitors, battering its nascent tourist industry. Tourist authorities have since spent heavily on promoting the region and officials say visitor numbers have recovered.

Xinjiang's attraction to tourists largely centers on its historical past as a stop along the ancient Silk Road connecting China to Europe. Cities such as Kashgar and Turpan boast famed mosques and distinctive Central Asian architecture, while the region's snowcapped mountains, lakes, deserts and grasslands draw trekkers and adventure tourists.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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