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Tibet Official Lauds Everest Road (AP)

BEIJING, Jun 20 (AP) - A top Tibetan official said Wednesday a planned highway to a base camp on Mount Everest would make the site more accessible to tourists and that although there were no plans to build a hotel along the route, he would not rule out such an idea.

The $20 million blacktop road is aimed at easing the Olympic torch's journey, which will be carried to the peak of the world's tallest mountain next year. The road will replace the current 67-mile rough path from the foot of the mountain to a base camp at 17,060 feet.

Xiangba Pingcuo, chairman of China's Tibet Autonomous Region, said the road was being built in order to "facilitate visitors" but there were no specific plans for construction of any other facilities.

"Because of the high elevation ... it is impossible to build any hotels there because for ordinary people it will be extremely difficult for them to spend the night," he said. However, he said he would "not completely rule out the possibility of building hotels in the future."

Organizers for the Beijing Summer Olympics announced in April ambitious plans for the longest torch relay in Olympic history an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that would cross five continents and reach the 29,035-foot summit of Everest. Taking the Olympic torch to the top of the mountain is seen by some as a way for Beijing to underscore its claims to Tibet. China says it has ruled Tibet for centuries, although many Tibetans say their homeland was essentially an independent state for most of that time. Chinese communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951, and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand.

Some activists have expressed concern about the road's environmental impact on the region, where global warming is causing glacial retreat. But Pingcuo said protecting the fragile ecosystem was a "top priority" for Tibetan officials.

"It is extremely difficult to resume (the ecosystem) once it has been disrupted," he said. The official Xinhua News Agency has reported that construction of the road would start next week and take about four months to complete.

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