DRAGONAIR hopes to launch two new routes to southern China this year, starting with a direct service to Ningbo in April. The Hongkong carrier has been negotiating with the Chinese authorities for permission to operate the new route since mid-1990 and now believes it is on the verge of a breakthrough. It is also confident it will be able to start flying to the famous beer-brewing city Qingdao, where Tsingtao is made, before the end of the year. Several factors make it particularly difficult for foreign carriers to get rights to fly to most China airports. Most routes are already heavily used by domestic flights and there is a serious shortage of English-speaking air traffic controllers. There is also a dire shortage of customs, immigration and quarantine officers. Under the current system, more officers are required at airports serving foreign airlines than those operating solely with China-owned carriers. For years, China has been protective of its own airlines, but observers believe its attitude may be changing. Dragonair's general marketing manager, Mr Robert Yih, said he expected the airline to be able to offer services to 14 coastal cities and special economic zones in southern China within three years. It currently flies to just five mainland destinations. Mr Yih thought the 14th Party Conference marked a turning point in China's attitude to overseas carriers. ''Up to the middle of last year the Chinese authorities were very protective towards their own airlines,'' he said. ''Since then we have noted a major change in their practice. This is probably linked to the continuing economic liberalisation of China. ''The leaders realise that if people want to come to do business in China and can't then the economy will suffer.'' In Ningbo, Dragonair is still trying to finalise arrangements for scheduling and the level of customs cover. China Eastern already flies to the new Ningbo airport four times a week, carrying business travellers and people visiting friends and relatives. Dragonair believes there will still be plenty of spare capacity to justify it operating a twice-weekly service from Hongkong. Ningbo is the home town of some of Hongkong's best-known tycoons, including the late Sir Yue-kong Pao, film magnate Sir Run Run Shaw and Mr Tung Chee-hwa, head of container firm Orient Overseas Holdings. Dragonair hopes to start flying to Qingdao before the summer. The city has a lot of character and should be attractive to tour groups as well as business travellers and visiting friends and relatives. It has been described as a little Germany. There are also plans for a third route to Japan soon.