The pandemic may accelerate the existing trend of digital nomads in an unexpected way — and some destinations are taking notice at a time when leisure travel is decimated.
The dream of living life as a “digital nomad” is not new. The term first entered the popular imagination around 2014, when freelance designers, developers, entrepreneurs, and writers with privileged passports would head to southeast Asia or eastern Europe for a cheaper lifestyle reliant only on Wi-Fi and a little bit of hustle.
It was an enviable, if niche, dream for many. But the forces of the pandemic have changed that a bit. With the cultural acceptance of remote work accelerating years in a matter of months, more and more individuals are seeing that not only do they not need to work from an office, but they don’t need to work from home, either.
Some tourism destinations are pivoting their offering to cater to this recently-expanded market. And in doing so, they are helping make up for the steep decline in short-term leisure tourism revenue. If travelers are avoiding coming for just a few days due to the headaches of travel restrictions, Covid testing on arrival, and/or quarantine, why not invite them to come for months?
One example is Bermuda, which opened its air borders to travelers on July 1 with required testing on arrival. Within weeks, said Glenn Jones, interim CEO of the Bermuda Tourism Authority, the industry had noted an uptick in people coming not for the extended weekends the tourism board was marketing, but rather weeks or months — or even those who were “not even sure when they’re going to go back. That was a whole new ballgame for us.”
The Work from Bermuda Certificate Program is open to visitors for up to one year. It’s not technically a visa, but an adaptation of an existing residency program that the Department of Immigration tweaked — which is partly why it was able to get off the ground so quickly. The online application launched on August 1 and involves an upfront cost of $263 per person, as well as proof that a nomad has sufficient healthcare insurance, or can afford to pay for a care package in Bermuda. Travelers can come and go from the country as they please
Jones noted that in July, Bermuda only had 10 percent of the air capacity it had last year, which will go up to 20 percent in August. “So we need consumers to buy goods and services in the tourism industry — this will not fill the gap but it will help,” Jones said. “Really this is a Department of Immigration program. It’s not usually something [the tourism authority] gets involved in, but it makes sense for us to help market it because our stakeholders will be the ones serving these consumers who decide to come. They are kind of a hybrid of visitors and residents.”
Let’s Make It Official
In a matter of weeks, Bermuda has created a version of something that Karoli Hindriks, founder of Estonian startup Jobbatical, has been lobbying for for years.
Estonia has successfully fashioned itself over the past decade as an international tech and startup hub, and it attracts the kind of top tier tech talent that slots right into the digital nomad archetype. Jobbatical helps startups across Europe streamline the immigration process for the talent they hire. So it made sense that in 2016, Hindriks helped pitched the idea of a digital nomad visa to Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid as a way to make it easier for tech workers to temporarily live and work in the Baltic nation, and thereby contribute to its burgeoning tech ecosystem.
Applications for the visa — which Hindriks describes as Jobbatical’s “policy baby” — opened on Aug. 1. It’s worth noting that though Estonia has opened its borders to some nationalities, American travelers applying for the visa would not be able to use it currently to bypass Covid-19 related travel restrictions.
Hindriks said even though she’s been working on it for years, the pandemic has made the idea of a digital nomad visa more relevant than ever.
“What I expect will happen after the pandemic is that now you have millions more people who know they can work remotely and then their employers know they can work remotely,” Hindriks said, explaining that this way of life and work will now feel possible not only to freelancers, but salaried workers too.
However, all those wannabe nomads will face a problem: In most countries, there is no legal way to come live and work for a medium-term length of time, without settling as a resident. Historically, many nomads have entered on tourists visas, more or less flying under the radar of authorities and moving onto new locations before things become too problematic. But now that the dream of working remotely is open not just to freewheeling freelancers, but those working in corporations too, that laissez faire approach likely isn’t going to work.
“We have a situation with a client whose employees [who are non-EU citizens] wanted to go work remotely from Spain and Italy. And what we say is there is no legal way to do it,” Hindriks said. “We can support and make it very clear how the process works, but [all] we can suggest is right now a tourist visa and let’s just hope no one discovers they’re actually working.”
Hindriks and others say this is a huge missed opportunity for countries that want to attract top talent, and benefit from a kind of slow-burn tourism from people willing to stay for a longer period of time without fully taking on residency status. Other countries that are trying to capitalize on the moment include Georgia and Barbados, which have both launched similar schemes to Bermuda’s. Both, unsurprisingly, have economies heavily dependent on tourism.
The dynamics unleashed by the pandemic are accelerating the nomad trend even more, said Pieter Levels, the founder of Nomad List, a popular website launched in 2014 that catalogs the best places to live and work remotely and helped the digital nomad movement gain momentum.
“Once the work goes remote, that gives [people] the chance to first work from home, then work outside the house in a cafe for example and then work a bit on their holiday,” Levels said. “Once they’re there, a percentage might consider to extend that holiday and make it their main lifestyle. I don’t think it will be people traveling from place to place though. More realistic is people living part of the year abroad. Think a British couple living and working from Spain six months per year to skip the British winter.”
Back in 2015, Levels predicted that by 2035 there would be one billion nomads worldwide — by which he meant people working remotely from abroad at least part of the year. Hindriks told Skift even she thought the prediction was too bold at the time.
“I didn’t think it was possible. But now I think this is the first time I’m actually seeing the math,” Hindriks said. “If these countries don’t think about [how to accommodate it], first of all it’s an opportunity that you’re losing, but second it’s putting employers in a very difficult situation. Because they’d like people to be free but they can’t allow it because they have legal risks.”
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Photo credit: Come to Bermuda, stay a while? Bermuda Tourism Authority