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Investors from Thailand need to shed outdated perceptions of Myanmar, says ambassador Pisanu

MYANMAR is a land of opportunity, but Thai investors who come here in search of a piece of the action should change their perceptions of the country, Pisanu Suvanajata, Thai ambassador to Myanmar, has suggested.

He considers perception to be a key barrier to investing in Myanmar, and points out that Thai investors still misunderstand the country, holding on to old memories of drug trafficking, ethnic disputes and extreme poverty.

In fact, this land of 53.3 million people has rapidly changed both its economic and political landscapes via a series of reform initiatives, he said, adding that such progress was sending out a good signal for those considering doing business in Myanmar.

Economically, he said its gross domestic product was projected to grow in a stable manner over the long term, with growth this year estimated at 9.1 per cent.

As to per capita income, Pisanu cited the Asian Development Bank's projection of it rising from an annual US$850 (Bt27,430) currently to $2,000-$3,000 by 2030.

Interestingly, he said, Myanmar's economy had continued to grow even during the period of sanctions. It only turned to negative growth during the country's national political crisis.

Its rising prosperity can be seen from the traffic congestion on its city streets, and also from the ongoing inflow of foreign investment. Further evidence is that the number of local people travelling abroad is on the rise, the diplomat said.

Moreover, in regard to tourists visiting the country, the number was 200,000 just three years ago, but this rose to 1.6 million last year - with a further increase to 1.8 million expected this year.

Tourism certainly offers a big business opportunity. Beyond the large cities of Yangon and Mandalay, Myeik - an unspoiled city located on the coast of an island in the Andaman Sea - is also attractive for investment.

Meanwhile, there is also a lack of good restaurants in the big cities, he said.

Pisanu spoke to a delegation of 125 Thais in Yangon last Wednesday, the majority of them members of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (ATTA). They were keen to explore business opportunities from Mandalay and Naypyidaw to Yangon.

Apart from meeting the ambassador, they had a chance to meet with local tourism-related operators via a platform called Table Top Sales, where they could introduce Thai tourism products.

This was aimed at boosting the flow of Myanmar tourists into Thailand at a time when foreign tourist arrivals has dropped - especially from Hong Kong and mainland China - due to the Kingdom's continuing political crisis.

And the reception they got was very good.

Sisdivachr Cheewarattanaporn, ATTA's president, said the four-day trip formed part of a learning pro-cess for its members about neighbouring markets in preparation |for the implementation of the Asean Economic Community next year |- creating connectivity between them.

The tourism sector in Myanmar presents a big business opportunity for Thai investors, especially in the areas of hotel construction and tour services, he said, adding that tour-service businesses would be considered as the forefront of the sector's investment in the country as they took less time to set up.

Maung Maung Swe, vice president of the Myanmar Tourism Federation and president of SM Tours & Transport, welcomed the move from Thai tourism operators and said tourism in Myanmar had a long way to go.

The industry requires foreign investment in opening four- and five-star hotels to serve the |rising number of foreign tourists, he said.

He added that there were now 1,000 hotels across Myanmar, offering 28,000 rooms in total. The former capital Yangon, also the country's largest city, has 9,000 rooms, some 4,000 of which are in four- and five-star hotels.

New hotel investment is welcomed and foreign investors are allowed to hold a 100-per-cent stake in four- and five-star properties, he said.

Swe expects the number of foreign tourist arrivals to double to 3 million this year, with 60-65 per cent of them coming from Asia.

Thai tourists account for the biggest proportion, followed by Chinese and Japanese visitors.

Hla Aye, managing director of Yangon-based Shan Yoma Travel & Tours, and also executive committee member of the Union of Myanmar Travel Association, said around 200,000 Myanmar nationals visited Thailand last year, with about and 80,000 of them visiting for medical treatment.

Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang |Mai and Phuket topped the list |of their favourite destinations, |and they were not put off from travelling by the country's political turmoil.

If Thailand were to lift its visa restrictions for Myanmar citizens, the number of tourists would increase fivefold, Aye said.


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