BUDAPEST (Reuters) - After seven years of toiling in a foreign hotel kitchen hundreds of miles away, Zoltan Kiss is now putting his faith in Hungary's economic recovery to start a new business at home and prevent his family from splintering apart.
The 40-year-old father of one was among millions of east Europeans who moved to wealthier western Europe in search of better-paid jobs after their countries joined the EU from 2004, leaving huge labour market gaps behind.
With economic prospects improving across eastern Europe and wages rising due partly to a shortage of workers, official data show tens of thousands of people returning to the region, where the cost of living remains well below western levels.
Those numbers will not cure chronic labour shortages overnight. Thousands of people are still planning to leave, and latest data show emigrants from both Hungary and Bulgaria still outnumber returnees.
But the first waves of returnees still signal something of a turning point for a region where migration has hitherto worked largely as a one-way street.
Kiss left home in 2010 to take up a job in a hotel kitchen in northern Italy after his video rental and massage businesses crashed during the global crisis, which hit Hungary hard.
"I had to find something to be able to maintain the same standard of living," said Kiss, whose son, now eight, was just 10 months old when he started working abroad.
Kiss, who has recently acquired a barista certification, plans to use his savings to launch a cafe in Budapest with a fellow Hungarian with whom he worked while abroad.
"Distance and this way of life take a very hard toll on your relationships," he said. "For me, too, not coming home now would have probably meant the end of my family."
Official statistics show 17,000 Hungarians returned last year, up from below 15,000 a year earlier.
More than 9,000 Bulgarians have been returning home every year since 2014, double the numbers of earlier years. Many are young people returning to start their own business, mainly in the IT sector, or to join growing outsourcing business opportunities.
In Poland, the region's biggest economy, net international migration turned positive last year for the first time since World War Two, official statistics show.
Meanwhile, net migration of EU citizens to Britain, a top target for east Europeans along with Germany or Italy, fell last year as new arrivals from eastern European countries sank to the lowest level since they joined the EU in 2004. Britain's looming exit from the EU is deterring some migrants.
Imre Molnar and his fiancee returned to Hungary after two years spent in Switzerland as they could not feel settled abroad. They have opened a wine bar in Budapest that serves only local wines and food.
"We realised that Switzerland is a very different country," Molnar said. "It is very beautiful, but society is quite closed, people are not very open and in reality we did not feel at home as we do here in Budapest."
Judit Kovacs, a branch manager at the Hungarian unit of Dutch staffing agency Randstad, said blue-collar workers were more likely to return as they usually cannot afford to take their entire family abroad.
"There is demand for returning workers, especially those who have learned a new technology," she said, citing auto sector suppliers as an example.
"Machine operators, for example, who have learned to run machinery that is not yet in use in Hungary but the investment is already in the pipeline," Kovacs said. "Workers with such experience are being snapped up like hot cakes."
Technological advances, such as the advent of self-driving cars, or the entry of service sector companies like BlackRock Inc into the Hungarian market, are also creating opportunities for white-collar workers.
German technology supplier Robert Bosch hired 2,000 workers in Hungary last year alone and plans to add hundreds more engineering jobs to keep up with buoyant demand.
BlackRock, which announced plans in January to open a service hub in Budapest, said it had received a large number of applications from prospective returnees after a scouting event hosted by the Hungarian embassy in London.
"About a third of applicants ... were Hungarians working in London who are planning to return to Hungary," corporate communications director Marc Bubeck said.
Economists are generally upbeat about prospects for the eastern European region, which is expected to outpace its richer western peers in economic growth in the years ahead despite concerns over its continued reliance on EU development funds.
But money isn't everything.
"In purely financial terms, it is definitely worth working abroad," Kiss said. "But if you look at the other side of the equation, that I have yet to ride a sled with my son even though he is already eight, the two are not necessarily in balance."
"For now, I am full of hopes and dreams," he said.
Additional reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova in SOFIA and Marcin Goettig in WARSAW; Editing by Gareth Jones