Visiting remote parts of Tibet will be easier in the future as the region is expected to have five civil airports by 2010, a senior official said.
The government will pour more than 3 billion yuan (US$440,000) into the projects, said Xu Bo, chief of the civil aviation administration in the Tibet autonomous region.
The money will be used to upgrade airports in Qamdo and Xigaze prefectures, build a new airport in Ngari prefecture and expand the Lhasa Gonggar Airport, he said.
The airport in Nyingchi prefecture has also been put into use.
"By 2010, the five airports will form a complete air transport network in Tibet," he said.
The Ngari airport in western Tibet is greatly anticipated because people traveling between Lhasa and Ngari need to spend at least four days on the road by car, Xinhua News Agency reported last week.
Dawa Tashi, deputy Party chief of Ngari Prefecture, was quoted by Xinhua saying that by 2011, when the airport is put into commercial use, Ngari, the furthest prefecture from Lhasa in Tibet, will be only two hours' flight from the capital.
With future flights linking Ngari with Lhasa, Chengdu and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, "passengers, cargo and information will flow to us", impacting local tourism and economy development, he said.
In the past three decades, civil aviation has brought millions of tourists to Tibet, making it a worldwide tourist attraction and boosting the local economy.
According to a study by a civil aviation research institute in 2007, civil aviation has contributed 6.03 billion yuan to the economy in Tibet, accounting for 24 percent of the region's gross domestic product, Shanghai-based China Business News reported on Friday.
Civil aviation is the main means for tourists to reach Tibet. According to Xu Bo, before the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway 90 percent of tourists entered Tibet by air.
Air tickets were so difficult to secure in the peak travel season of July and August that some tourists had to wait in Lhasa for a couple of days for an open seat, said Sang Wei of Beijing, who traveled to Tibet on her own in 2004.
"You never expected to buy an air ticket to Lhasa with any discount," she said.
Flights used to be few because Tibet was regarded as "a forbidden area for flight".
"Its complicated landform, sharp temperature difference, big winds and low clouds make piloting planes to Tibet a challenging task," said Liu Qian, deputy general manager with China Southern Airlines.
The natural restrictions meant less than 60 percent of flights to Lhasa could arrive or leave on time, he said.
But with more advanced technologies used on the flights to Tibet, planes can take off and land in complicated weather and with poor visibility, according to earlier news reports.
Six airlines have opened flights to Lhasa since 2005, ending a long history in which only Air China ran a flight from Beijing to Lhasa via Chengdu.
(China Daily March 23, 2009)