These days, the spotlight's on China, and the country's high profile is partly due to this year's Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Once the Olympic torch is extinguished, many Olympic host cities lose their fanfare and quietly return to normal -- or worse, experience post-Olympic hangovers. That doesn't appear to be the case with China -- there are many reasons to believe China's astronomical growth will continue far beyond the Games.
The Olympics are a big deal for a host nation, boosting tourism and attention in the short and long term. Major corporations -- including McDonald's (NYSE: MCD ) , Visa (NYSE: V ) , and Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO ) -- are eager to sponsor the Olympics because of its global popularity; it's a great way to reach mass audiences around the world. And of course, this summer's games offer advertisers exposure to China's immense native population, which has been enjoying amazing growth related to the coming games themselves.
UBS estimates that the Olympics will feed China's greater-than-12%-per-annum economic growth from 2007 to 2010 -- creating 745,000 jobs in the process. China is spending some $40 billion in infrastructure improvements directly related to the Olympics. Word has it that Beijing is unrecognizable from just a couple of years ago, thanks to all the rapid growth and change.
Four years ago, when I (Kristin) visited Beijing, the tour guide explained the mass quantities of cranes and bulldozers performing rapid construction around us. In just one spot, he pointed to where five five-star hotels were in the works just for the Olympics. And the airport where I arrived now boasts the largest terminal in the world -- a terminal that didn't even exist when I was there four years back.
Given that kind of rapid growth and change, it's easy to see how some people might expect a hangover after the Olympics have gone. It stands to reason that most countries would have a letdown, despite all the benefits the Olympics bring. But most countries don't have the kind of rapidly developing emerging economy we're seeing in China.
Making Mount Olympus look like a molehill
Hosting the Olympics may be a one-time (or at least infrequent) opportunity, but China's coming growth is no one-shot deal. Here's some perspective: A mere 1.1% of the country's population lives in Beijing, where the games will be held. (The last summer games were held in Athens, where 40% of the Greek population lives.) That's mind-boggling when you consider how much more opportunity remains.
The funds dedicated to infrastructure improvements for the Olympics -- $40 billion -- seem impressive, but they're actually a mere drop in the bucket when it comes to China's overall plans. Under its current five-year plan, China intends to spend a whopping $420 billion on expanding infrastructure. The Olympics is admittedly a big part of China's play to improve its image in the eyes of the world, but in the big economic picture, it's merely an added bonus.
Quality of life in China is swiftly improving, but there are still 10 million Chinese citizens who do not have electricity; it is estimated that 500 coal-fired plants need to be built in China in the next decade. Given that, it's probably not surprising that most Chinese people don't have cell phones yet, either -- in a country of 1.3 billion, just 540 million Chinese have a cell phone, and 44 million of those were procured in the past six months alone.
That's a far cry from our own country. We will always need infrastructure improvements and innovative new products and services, but for the most part, most companies here duke it out for market share among customers who already have basic services covered.
That's just not the case in China. Here are other examples: Chinese are hitting the road in record numbers. More than 1,000 new private cars hit the roads each day. And travel isn't limited to the roadways; in addition to the aforementioned world's largest terminal, China plans to build a mind-boggling 97 airports by 2020 to address the expected burgeoning travel to and from that country. The implications for investment and growth in China are truly staggering.
More than the gold medal
The idea of a post-Olympics bust in China -- as argued by "China Cassandras," as BusinessWeek calls them -- seems highly overrated. Some Chinese stocks may experience temporary ups and downs from the short-term effects of the Olympics. And China-centric travel stocks like Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP ) , Home Inns & Hotels Management (Nasdaq: HMIN ) , China Eastern Airlines (NYSE: CEA ) , or China Southern Airlines (NYSE: ZNH ) might get a bit bubbly, then recede, as some investors enthusiastically speculate on the Olympics' positive influence in the short term.
For the long haul, though, China represents gigantic opportunities for investors. The Olympics may be all about winning the gold, but for many investors, China's truly golden years are yet to come.
This week and next, Motley Fool Global Gains advisor Bill Mann and his team are on a research trip in China (as well as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Singapore) to meet with companies and local investors and to get the view from the ground. You can read about everything they uncover in their real-time dispatches from the field -- delivered directly to your inbox. To sign up, just enter your email address in the box below.