Remote work made digital nomads possible. The pandemic made them essential

Special visas. Free Vaccines. Tax breaks. Countries around the world are courting a new class of human capital that wants to mix travel and work forever.

By CONNIE LIN | Fast Company | May 13, 2021

This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.

In April, a radio DJ, a marine ecologist, a water polo player, and a migrant studies scholar flew to idyllic Dubrovnik, a seaside city in Croatia with a vast labyrinth of medieval architecture famed for composing the scenery of the cult fantasy TV show Game of Thrones. Hailing from Finland, Japan, and the United States, the travelers were among 10 lucky winners of a first-of-its-kind digital nomad residency contest, for which the prize was a month-long stay in the lush “Pearl of the Adriatic” with complimentary meals and lodging. The residents ate, drank, networked, and day-tripped to the cliffs of Konavle—home of 2020’s most beautiful beach in Europe—and the island of Mljet, which is shrouded in dense forest that features exciting hazards like venomous snakes and wild mongooses. Ostensibly, they were there to brainstorm how to design Dubrovnik as a nomad-friendly city in the digital age.

But for Croatia, the real goal was to market its own image away from a “holiday playground,” as program director Tanja Polegubic calls it, into a serious long-term destination for remote workers. You could think of it as striking while the iron is hot—or really, while Croatia is hot: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the country saw an influx of workers fleeing expensive cities in western Europe.

“Asia wasn’t an option, so a lot of people were looking to the Balkans because the further east you go, it’s a lot cheaper,” Polegubic says.

Croatia’s not alone: Countries spanning the Caribbean isle to the Arabian desert are suddenly pivoting to court digital nomads in the post-coronavirus era, dangling everything from free vaccines, to tax breaks, to the chance to live in tropical paradise. Call it a new global arms race, where the weapon in question is an arsenal of highly skilled remote workers—ones that were trapped in their homes during the pandemic, but could now be untethered by it from their offices forever. With a new class of human capital up for grabs, countries are looking to stockpile talent, and digital nomads are living a new reality: They’ve become a hot commodity.

Digital nomads, ironically, are easy to locate. By nature of their lifestyle, many have built careers on the internet: sharing snapshots of dreamy landscapes spun from coconut palm trees and rainbow-colored villas, hosting blogs that detail the ins and outs of life perpetually on the road. You might look for them on forums like Reddit, where a recent photo depicts a Monday breakfast in a Mexican cafe, another, a standing laptop desk on the Tanzanian waterfront. In other posts, they compare tax rates in Uruguay vs. Peru and trade advice on securing high-speed WiFi connections. Many seem guided by a common ethos: to soak up as much of Earth as possible in the short time we are given with it.

Take Nuseir Yassin, for example. A Harvard graduate, he quit his engineering job at Venmo in 2016, bought a camera and a one-way plane ticket, and started Nas Daily, a Facebook page where he would post a one-minute video from a new location every day for the next 1,000 days. In his videos, he wears a t-shirt with a battery icon symbolizing what percentage of his life is already over. “It was a very simple math equation,” he says. “At Venmo, I calculated 32%. I was one-third dead. I decided to spend the remaining two-thirds doing what I enjoy.”

That’s a familiar origin story for a digital nomad, one reminiscent of famous peripatetics like Nomadic Matt, who founded a popular website and is now the best-selling author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, and Chris the Freelancer, who taught himself how to code and then took up programming abroad. There’s also Johnny FD, who quit his corporate desk job to become a wandering scuba divemaster and professional martial arts fighter—his nickname, which stands for “Fighter-Divemaster,” is search-engine optimized.

By contrast, a few hundred years ago, “nomads” were largely indigenous hunter-gatherers who tailed roaming herds of buffalo across the American plains, leaving little-to-no trace where they went. But today they’re thought of as people with extensive online fingerprints, footprints, and personas—hippies in sandals, millennials with smartphones, and the occasional billionaire tech entrepreneur. And they’re all living a strange paradigm: journeying solo across far-flung continents, yet somehow more wired to the rest of the world than ever before.

For such a group, the COVID-19 pandemic was an existential crisis. For the first time, the community built around having no fixed address was forced to shelter in place: Travelers were suddenly stranded, unable to fly back to their native country and unsure if their room and board had the means to stay in business. As cities recoiled in fear of the virus, foreigners began to feel unwelcome in the streets they called home. The world turned inward. Time stopped. And so the nomads waited.

THE PARADOX OF NOMAD LOCKDOWN

For those who want to travel, there must be somewhere to go—and for a brief period last year, there simply wasn’t. With planes grounded and quarantines in effect, exotic destinations that thrived on tourism saw their economies crumble. But at the same time, as offices across the globe transferred business to the cloud and talking heads mused about the staying power of remote work, a new opportunity emerged from the rubble: a chance to lure talented individuals to tiny islands and rustic countrysides that lacked booming, 21st-century industries.

That was the idea behind an explosion of special travel permits offered by a growing list of countries, referred to as “digital nomad visas.” Estonia, a northern European country that borders Russia to the east and the Baltic Sea to the west, was among the first to roll out the option last summer. While small—the nation is home to just 1.3 million people—Estonia boasts one of today’s most technologically advanced digital governments, pillared by a cutting-edge e-residency program that lets people abroad start businesses and open bank accounts without ever setting foot within its borders. Years ago, it was the first to conceive of a digital nomad visa, which would let visitors working for an overseas employer reside in the country legally for up to 12 months—a ground-breaking idea that promised rock the nomad community.

To understand why, one should note that the life of a globetrotter has historically involved mountains of paperwork and a sea of bureaucracy. Those hoping to remain employed with one company were required to have it sponsor their stay in each foreign country, and those who didn’t had to seek international gigs. Otherwise, they would be relegated to short-term tourist visas lasting a matter of weeks, which were, by definition, contingent on the visitor not collecting income in the country. Because this was the easiest type of visa to obtain, nomads would brandish it at customs, but then work covertly while hoping not to be caught, says Karoli Hindriks, whose company Jobbatical first pitched the idea for Estonia’s visa. In other words, it was a racket. “Maybe a freelancer can take the risk,” says Hindriks, “But if you’re with a corporation? Imagine if Facebook employees are suddenly all over the world, illegally working with tourist visas. That would be a headache.”

When news broke of the permit in 2018, Estonia was a pioneer in the field. But by the time the program debuted in August 2020—five months into the pandemic—it was joined by a wave of countries rushing to draft new sources of income. The Caribbean island of Barbados introduced its “Welcome Stamp” 12-month visa last June, hoping to staunch the bleeding on the tourism industry that made up 14% of the country’s gross domestic product the year before. According to the New York Times, Barbados reported that more than 1,000 applications were submitted within a week, with a majority from the United States, Canada, and Britain. Similar programs sprung forth from Bermuda, Georgia, Iceland, and Dubai—which advertised free COVID-19 vaccinations with its visas.

Madeira, a volcanic archipelago off the coast of Portugal, is going a step further: It’s cultivating a small village of digital nomadshoused in Ponta do Sol, a shoreline parish with a pebble beach cove, rugged waterfalls, and hiking trails criss-crossing its sloping valley. Organized with support from the regional government, the project offers nomads a free co-working space inside a local cultural center and help finding accommodations, as well as a packed schedule of cool events—recently, yoga classes, CrossFit on the beach, and a cryptocurrency seminar. According to creator Gonçalo Hall, a consultant at Startup Madeira, 200 nomads are already registered from countries including Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic, and more are expected from the United States and Brazil after transatlantic borders reopen. If successful, it could generate revenue rivaling that of seasonal tourists—but with fewer people over a longer period of time.

But zoom out for a moment, and all of this might disrupt a greater issue that was scrambled by the pandemic, which is the brain drain problem. For decades, countries—entire continents, even—have been losing generations of young talent to a handful of innovation capitals like New York, Tokyo, London, or Silicon Valley. It’s something Tanja Polegubic understands as a member of the Croatian diaspora who landed in Canberra. “Being from Australia and having roots in Croatia, it’s always been, ‘Oh gee, I’d love to be based here and still keep my outside job,’” she says.

Now with remote work, that seems more possible—Polegubic already knows of a couple who moved back from Vienna, as well as a yuppie who was working at a big tech headquarters in Dublin.

Of course, it will take more than that to undo the brain drain. According to Jan de Jong, who spearheaded Croatia’s nomad visa in January, around 500,000 Croats have left the country over the past 10 to 15 years. It’s not a problem unique to Croatia by any means. Portugal suffered one of the worst cases of human capital flight in the early 2000s, shedding 19.5% of its qualified population.

Back in the Madeira Islands, Hall hopes his program can buck the trend. “Part of my mission is to decentralize the world from big cities and repopulate villages,” he says. A digital nomad community would be easier to pull off in an urban hub like Lisbon, but he chose Ponta do Sol—population 9,000—purposefully to kickstart its rural economy. “After the lockdown, people understand that the quality of life in villages is actually fairly superior to the ones in cities,” Hall says. “We just moved to cities because that’s where the jobs were.”

Hindriks, meanwhile, paints a more dire portrait: The world is suffering from a deepening talent shortage that could cost $8.5 trillion by 2030, she says, citing research from global consulting firm Korn Ferry. That’s due to factors including aging populations, sluggish birth rates, and lackluster education systems that fail to prepare workers for the demands of the labor market. “Where talent moves will define the success of economies,” she says, “and all the countries will be fighting for the same talent.” According to Hindriks, future competition of cities could come down to “user experience,” which could mean access to schooling, effective infrastructure, mobility, and rapid crisis management in the face of threats like climate change and epidemic diseases. Policymakers will need to keep up: “They should be thinking, ‘How can I sell my country better, so the smart people will move here?’

ORIGIN OF A SPECIES ON THE MOVE

The term “digital nomad” was born in 1997, when Japanese semiconductor expert Tsugio Makimoto wrote a book forecasting a revolution in the way we live and work. Future technologies, he predicted, would eventually let workers cast off the anchors of their location-based occupations and set sail for faraway lands, while continuing to hold jobs and earn a living over the internet.

About two decades later, Makimoto’s vision was rapidly materializing: In 2019, consulting firm MBO Partners found that 7.3 million American workers described themselves as digital nomads, and another 16.1 million said they planned to adopt the lifestyle within the next two years. There was, according to the firm, “extensive interest” in digital nomadism—but to many, it still seemed to be a lifestyle forged mostly by those with quirky, fringe professions. Online, stories circulated of nomads whose backgrounds included world-class poker players, early blockchain developers, and self-help gurus.

By the beginning of 2021, all of that was ripe for change. In the past year, the universal work-from-home experiment forced by the coronavirus pandemic has put the choice on the map for a greater demographic: the white-shoed to the buttoned-up to the hoodie-zipped. According to research from McKinsey Global Institute, which analyzed 2,000 tasks across 800 jobs and nine countries, “bankers, insurance agents, programmers, and engineers could all work remotely the vast majority of the time, without a loss of productivity,” says Susan Lund, a coauthor of the study. In fact, that’s the case for most computer-based jobs, which make up about a third of U.S. employment—if this potential were realized, it would represent four to five times more remote work than before the pandemic.

That’s not to say it will be: Despite some companies publicly committing to work from home forever policies—such as Twitter, Zillow, Salesforce, and Dropbox—data shows most will likely return to the office. But the incremental change is still significant. According to Green Street Advisors, a real estate research firm, roughly 3% worked fully remotely pre-COVID, and that’s expected to become 9% post-COVID—a threefold increase. And for a multitude of companies embracing a hybrid model, Lund says she can imagine a more agile workplace, perhaps offering a sabbatical year or remote work as a perk for high-performing employees. “Workers are demanding flexibility,” says Lund, “and companies know they may leave and go elsewhere if they don’t get it. It’s possible that digital nomads have a chance to shape this policy.”

In addition to worker retention, there are a number of factors driving the shift: cost-cutting by curbing office real estate, the freedom to recruit talent much more globally. And amid a recent spotlight on sustainability, many companies are signing green pledges and tracking carbon emissions, which would be reduced if employees commuted less. These trends appear unlikely to disappear in the near future, and workers seem to be betting on it: According to a Fast Company-Harris poll of 1,105 people across a spectrum of income brackets, while 39% worked onsite pre-pandemic, only 31% expected to do so post-pandemic. When respondents were asked whether they planned to travel out of town while working remotely and without using vacation time, after all COVID restrictions are lifted, 57% said yes.

THE NEW BUSINESS TRAVEL

Travel-industry businesses, which were hobbled by the pandemic, are also surveying COVID-era trends. Hospitality companies hurt by year-long shutdowns are now catering to a new post-pandemic traveler: the office-liberated, white-collar techpat. Among them is Marriott Bonvoy, which in March unveiled plans to expand its portfolio of long-term stay brands, including Element Hotels, Residence Inn by Marriott, and TownePlace Suites by Marriott, all equipped with full kitchens and roomy living spaces.

“As the lines between business and leisure continue to blur, small groups are seeking more space to work and relax,” read a statement from the company, whose locations purport to let guests “seamlessly replicate their everyday routine while exploring.” It will open 17 new properties across the three brands this year, in such tourist hot spots as Steamboat Springs, Colorado; Panama City, Panama; and Dubai.

Targeting a ritzier crowd is CitizenM, a Dutch luxury hotel chain with 20 locations worldwide including Paris, Zurich, and Shanghai, which launched a subscription program called “Global Passport” last September. For $1,500 a month, passport holders can spend up to 30 days in any of the hotel’s properties, then hop to another site in another city, repeating indefinitely: “Sign it, pay the deposit, start travelling,” the website urges. Similarly Outsite, a California startup that runs dedicated co-living spaces where digital nomads can work, rest, and socialize, is also chartering a membership with a $2,000 monthly fee to access locations across different cities. The program is set to debut after countries lift their COVID-19 border restrictions, likely close to January 2022.

“The issue right now is supply, because we have too much demand,” says Outsite founder Emmanuel Guisset. That’s happening particularly in what he calls “lifestyle cities,” where there’s good weather year round and a high quality of life—places like San Diego; Santa Cruz, California; and Austin, Texas. “It’s very exciting,” he says from his decampment in Costa Rica, which is apparently swelling with remote workers. “It’s the same for Mexico,” he adds, naming another country that conveniently shares time zones with the U.S. “When everybody gets vaccinated, it’s just going to be a huge boom.”

Airbnb, which made its name marketing the home away from home, is also prepping for a shift in travel behavior, seemingly with more lax migration in mind: Whereas users searching for a place to stay previously had to select exact days for arrival and departure, they were recently given the option to search generally for a week-long vacation, or even a months-long stay.

For those who choose such a way of life, their paths are becoming smoother as technology proliferates. The language barrier is being broken down by increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence-powered translators. And the rise of digital, contactless everything post-pandemic could help thread the cultural snags that might occur in everyday tasks, such as shopping for groceries or tipping a rickshaw driver.

Of course, the road is still littered with obstacles, such as finding healthcare—a requirement of many digital nomad visas—or navigating tax legislation specific to companies, which could be forced to pay foreign duties if enough of their workers settle in a given country. But for the true believers, that hardly matters; the spirit of the nomad electrifies. “A lot of people ask themselves, ‘Why do I live where I live, or do what I do?’” says Nuseir Yassin. “I had to question it myself. I felt truly alive when I was in a car in the middle of a safari, or meeting new people from Africa or South America. I thought, ‘I want to feel alive 24/7,’ you know? Life’s too short not to see the world.”

Read the full story at Fast Company.