Business travel spending in Europe is steadily recovering from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to recent data and analysis.
However, the pace of recovery remains uneven across different countries and regions.
Western Europe Rebounding Faster Than East
According to a report by the European Travel Commission (ETC), Western European countries like France, Spain and the Nordics are recovering more quickly, having already exceeded or being forecast to surpass 2019 business travel spending levels this year.
Emerging markets in Eastern Europe continue to lag, with countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania seeing the biggest declines due to their proximity to Russia and reliance on Russian travelers. These countries saw foreign arrivals down 27-33% compared to 2019.
The war in Ukraine has also heavily impacted Emerging Europe, which has recovered just 57% of 2019 business travel spending versus 71% in Western Europe. Overall, Europe is forecast to recover 90% of 2019 spend this year.
Top Spend Markets Slower to Recover
On the other hand, the Global Business Travel Association reported that some of Europe's largest business travel markets — Germany, the UK and Italy - are rebounding slower than others.
Germany and the UK were only at 65% and 57% of 2019 levels respectively in 2022. France, Spain and the Netherlands had already recovered over 75% last year.
Germany is forecast to reach 89% recovery this year, with the UK at 82%. Meanwhile France should hit 96% and Spain surpass 2019 levels entirely.
Consumer Behaviors Shifting
European travelers are still prioritizing business trips, with 82% finding them worthwhile for objectives. However, behaviors are evolving.
There is greater emphasis on “purposeful” travel tied to specific meetings or events versus trips for general relationship building. Multimodal trips are also increasing, with 32% using rail and 29% cars versus just 36% flying for their last trip.
Travelers are also getting more value-conscious, opting for affordable destinations like Turkey and Bulgaria. Lower-cost trips during off-peak seasons are also gaining appeal.
Tourism Trips Recover But Business Travel Lags
While tourism travel within the EU has rebounded close to pre-pandemic levels, business trips continue to lag.
European Union (EU) residents took 23% more overnight tourism trips in 2022 versus 2021, now just 4% below 2019 levels. But business trips remain 20% below 2019 volumes.
Personal trips are also 6% above 2013, while business trips declined 15% over the same period. This highlights the persisting struggle for corporate travel's recovery.
Air Traffic Rebound Accelerating
August passenger traffic was just 3.4% below August 2019, with international travel back to near normal. Total 2023 volumes should hit 95.5% of 2019 levels.
However, performance between individual airports varies greatly based on factors like tourism demand, low-cost carrier growth, and the Ukraine conflict's impact on Eastern markets.
Some airports, especially tourism hubs and smaller regional airports, have already exceeded 2019 passengers. But major hubs like London-Heathrow, Paris CDG and Frankfurt remain 10-15% below pre-pandemic levels.
Impacts on EU Visitors and Immigrants
For EU citizens hoping to travel internationally for business, the uneven recovery creates a patchwork of destinations to consider.
Western European countries like France, Spain, and Nordic nations are largely back to pre-pandemic operations. But Eastern European destinations are still rebuilding tourism.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and EU sanctions have made business travel to Russia challenging. Ukraine itself is clearly unsafe. These issues disproportionately affect Eastern European immigrants with ties to those countries.
The UK’s slower rebound could also be a factor for EU visitors, given its popularity as a business destination. France may be a safer bet in 2023 for those able to make the trip.
Impacts on EU Immigration Policy
With business travel intrinsic to foreign investment and talent acquisition, the uneven recovery could impact foreign direct investment (FDI) and skilled immigration across Europe.
Countries like France and Spain exceeding 2019 travel spend will be better positioned to attract foreign business interest and talent versus struggling markets like Germany and the UK.
However, for multinationals and investors already established in Europe, travel changes are unlikely to spur relocation. Business travel is just one factor in overall stability and opportunity.
The crisis in Ukraine may influence immigration policies related to Eastern European nations in the near term. But otherwise, no major EU immigration changes linked to business travel trends are expected.
Uneven Recovery Creates ETIAS Uncertainty
With the uneven business travel recovery across Europe, it creates uncertainty around the upcoming European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS). In fact, the launch of the ETIAS was delayed, yet again, to Spring 2025.
ETIAS requires those traveling visa-free to Europe to obtain pre-travel authorization. If some countries rebound slower, it may impact ETIAS applications and approval rates.
For example, if Germany and the UK continue lagging at only 80-90% of 2019 volumes, it could reduce ETIAS applications from those key markets versus others like France and Spain that have fully recovered.
There is also the question of whether ETIAS fees could deter some business travel to struggling countries versus better-recovered markets.
However, uneven business travel flows may shape some application patterns but are unlikely to dramatically slow progress or necessitate delays.
So while disparities in Europe’s travel rebound create uncertainties, ETIAS implementation is still poised to move forward on target in the coming year.
While optimism exists for a steady rebound, it will take time for all of Europe to get back to pre-pandemic business travel levels.
Some countries are recovering faster, while larger markets like Germany and the UK continue to lag. Conflict in Eastern Europe also presents lingering challenges.
But despite uneven progress across the region, Europe remains a top global destination for business investment and travel. Adaptability will be key for travelers and destinations navigating the ongoing recovery.