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SYDNEY, March 21 (Reuters) - Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd , the country's No. 2 airline, said it would run five return flights a week between the city of Melbourne and Hong Kong, making good on previously disclosed plans to tap the lucrative Chinese travel market.
The airline, 10 percent-owned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, identified China as a target growth market in mid-2016 when it took on China's HNA Innovation Ventures and China's Nanshan Capital Holdings as major shareholders.
The announcement of the new flights, the first for Virgin to greater China, came a day after Virgin said it obtained Australian preliminary regulatory clearance to operate those routes.
"Virgin Australia's entry into Hong Kong and greater China is a key pillar of our international strategy, allowing us to tap into Australia's fastest growing and most valuable inbound travel market," Virgin Chief Executive Officer John Borghetti said in a statement.
A proposed alliance between Virgin Australia, HNA and Hong Kong Airlines will let Virgin customers connect via Hong Kong to 13 destinations in mainland China, while travellers on Hainan Airlines, Hong Kong Airlines, Capital Airlines and Tianjin Airlines can join Virgin Australia's Australasian network, Virgin Australia said.
Virgin Australia has said it plans in the longer term to sell flights between Australia and mainland China.
The airline will compete with Australian No. 1 airline Qantas Airways Ltd and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways on the Melbourne-Hong Kong route.
Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Peter Cooney