Copycats of famous western fast-food brands in Myanmar. [File photo]
As senior decision-makers from around the globe descended on Myanmar's capital of Naypyidaw for the World Economic Forum on East Asia recently, multinational companies were lining up to explore the huge commercial opportunities in the country.
At Standard Chartered, we're seeing strong, and growing, interest in Myanmar from clients across the globe and across all business sectors. With the European Union lifting the last of its non-military sanctions on Myanmar in April, European corporates, hungry for growth as demand at home remains weak, have shown the greatest interest in the country.
Multinationals are starting to cautiously put money to work in Myanmar. Many have already opened representative offices or branches in the country, recognizing that the pace of reform is now so rapid that you have to have people on the ground to seize the opportunities as they unfold.
Multinationals have long since spotted the economic potential of this vast country with a population of more than 60 million. Myanmar, once the world's largest rice exporter, is rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas and timber. The country is also strategically located between India and China and is a member of the fast-growing ASEAN trading bloc, which it is scheduled to chair next year.
Often regarded as Asia's last large frontier market, Myanmar has opened up much faster than expected in the past year, because the government has set its sights firmly on economic reform to create jobs and lift incomes. The passing of a new foreign investment law at the end of 2012 marked an important milestone in creating a more investor-friendly climate in the country.
This spring, Myanmar took another major step by inviting global telecom companies to bid for nationwide telephone service licenses, and companies taking part have been impressed with the transparency of the process. With less than 10 percent of its citizens currently using mobile phones, Myanmar is the world's largest untapped cell phone market. A leap in connectivity could accelerate the country's economic development, as we have seen in many markets.
Three large special economic zones (SEZs) are now being set up in Myanmar, including Dawei, with plans for a major deep-sea port, and Thilawa, with a large-scale industrial zone near Yangon - once one of Asia's most thriving cities. Supported by Thailand and Japan, the SEZs promise to transform the country's economic future, capturing fast-growing trade and investment in Asia.
Some changes are evident already to anyone visiting Myanmar. Hotel rooms going empty a year ago are now full to capacity, at four or five times the rate, as the country's vast tourism potential begins to take off. ATMs, which were once a rarity, are found in the dozens in major cities, following agreements with two global payment companies. So you can withdraw Myanmar kyats using your Visa or MasterCard credit card.