Conducting business overseas and beyond UK shores is certainly trickier these days. The global pandemic changed how governments deal with health checks, Brexit changed how Britons travel beyond their borders, and the digitalisation of visa processes has shifted how people enter many countries. At the same time, immigration is a hot, populist issue. There’s now a perfect storm affecting global business travellers.
It was only earlier in May that the US lifted requirements on PCR Covid testing for inbound air travellers. There’s still an elevated concern about public health, with some countries requiring new private health insurance or fresh vaccinations. Other nations have relaxed immigration policies in order to open borders with the aim of attracting talent, alleviating skill shortages and boosting the economy.
“The world of business travel in 2023 is very different from that in 2019. We now live in an uncertain world of changing norms. It’s not about whether you can get to your final destination - but are you able to do the things you need to do for business in a compliant, law-abiding way? It’s now a big issue,” explains Ray Rackham, SVP thought leadership, advocacy and public policy for CIBT, a leading global provider of visa and immigration services. The company has one of the largest and most well-established travel visa and passport companies in the world, servicing over two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies.
“It means businesses and travel managers need to take a proactive, less reactive approach. For each trip, they need to re-evaluate whether a business traveller is allowed to visit, stay or work in a country. The landscape is much more dynamic than it was in the past. Hop on a plane today without thinking, and you could run the risk of putting your company and employees at significant risk of breaching immigration regulations.”
Digitisation cuts through complexity
Now that the UK is operating outside of the EU, certain activities that British business travellers were once easily able to do are now not permissible under new post-Brexit rules and vice versa for EU citizens visiting the UK. Attend a certain type of meeting, or provide certain services in some countries, and travellers can find themselves outside of the immigration rules. This is especially tricky for European and British companies with operations in both jurisdictions.
“We are really seeing the impact of this right now. A few weeks ago, we saw the removal of a number of individuals off-site in both Belgium and Denmark, they were then given travel bans that applied across the Schengen Area because what they were doing on-site was not permissible under the immigration rules of that country,” Rackham notes.
“There’s a real struggle for business travellers to understand the impact of Brexit in a post-Covid world,” he continues. “The pandemic only served to delay that impact, and it is now being felt at a time when business meetings, events, and overseas business travel is on the upswing.”
The lines are also blurred now as business travellers extend their stays with leisure breaks. These so-called ‘bleisure’ trips have grown popular. Travellers are also trip-batching, grouping trips together and flying to multiple destinations to see clients and colleagues instead of doing multiple, point-to-point trips. This saves money and time and reduces emissions, especially on long-haul journeys. Yet extending time overseas can have an impact on visas.
For instance, every day counts if a UK citizen steps foot inside the Schengen Area as a tourist or a businessperson. They have a 90-day allowance within a rolling 180 days. At the same time, countries are digitally upgrading their visa and immigration systems to save costs and capture and share such information. Electronic authorisations, similar to the US ESTA program, are on the horizon for both the UK and the EU, and e-visas and biometrics are also increasingly deployed.
“Digitisation has impacted the entire cross-border cycle, in many ways, and in many countries. The aim has been to simplify complexity in the visa processes, but there are consequences, it has created a world of complex simplicity. More and more we see applications rejected because travellers assumed the digital application process was simple. But one wrong answer to a simple yet ambiguous question can cause ongoing, and in some cases, permanent ramifications for a traveller in the longer term,” points out Rackham.
Embracing evolving travel norms
With immigration issues topping headlines across the globe, visas have become a political fault line. Politicians are getting tougher to protect local labour markets. At the same time, the same decision-makers are looking to revitalise economies with the freer movements of workers from overseas.
It means local policies, legislation, and regulations are evolving at pace, and businesses have to make sense of all these factors whilst driving value across borders and in a more globalised economy.
“For anyone running a travel programme aimed at building a multinational business in this increasingly interconnected world, they need intuitive mobility for their workforce, where employees can travel swiftly, securely and with certainty. But this is more complex now. It takes a lot of expertise and knowledge to make sense of the changes going on,” states Rackham.
He continues: “Partnering with experts allows corporations to get the right people, to the right place, at the right time. Navigating these complexities is progressively important as the travel ecosystem evolves.”
The visa and immigration system across the globe is still moving rapidly; it’s becoming more data-driven and data-informed. Rackham expects to see more e-visas worldwide, with the potential for more enforcement. This will have implications for how we travel in the future as more data is shared with national authorities at a faster rate.
“We’re continually looking at the horizon for the ‘new travel normal,’” he adds. “But I think we’re living it already. It’s a world in constant evolution, with ever-changing norms. Businesses need to embrace change but be fully aware and cognisant of both the challenges and opportunities, the changing traveller population, and the evolving rules and robustly prepare themselves with resilient and relevant travel management programmes that can adapt over time. Businesses must be prepared.”
To learn more how CIBT can assist with your global travel and immigration needs, visit info.cibt.com/raconteur