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The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a global spike in remote work. However, most people have a ‘home base’ such as a house or apartment, where they spend most of their time. These remote workers may travel and work from a different location for a few days or weeks, but then return to their home base. Digital nomads are different; they are a cross between the long-term expat and the two-week vacationer. The Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) has released a new research report to share findings about who these digital nomads are and what they are looking for when they travel.
“Understanding this lifestyle can be complex and many people and destinations are still unsure of what it means. The number of digital nomads was steadily increasing year-by-year, but COVID-19 drastically increased this market, catching many destinations, accommodations, local business, and tourism boards unprepared. I hope this report can be a starting point for many organizations that want to know more about who these travelers are, what they are looking for, and how to address their needs.” – Diego Arelano, Adventure Travel Trade Association & Digital Nomad
Who Are Digital Nomads?
Digital nomads are “people who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living and, more generally, conduct their life in a nomadic manner. Such workers often work remotely from foreign countries, coffee shops, public libraries, co-working spaces, or recreational vehicles.” They often spend months at a time in one location, then move on to another. They may not have a permanent address, instead living minimally and traveling with many of their possessions.
Members of this group “live like locals,” meaning more money is often kept within the local community and economy, rather than going to large international brands. In their travel interests, however, they’re different than locals – they’re curious about experiences with the attitude of a visitor, sharing their experiences with friends and family back home who haven’t yet gotten up the nerve to make the dream of living in another culture a reality.
Digital nomads typically stay longer than leisure tourists in each destination as they are able to generate income as they travel. Some destinations are introducing visas specifically for digital nomads, allowing them to stay for extended periods of time and work remotely without the more stringent requirements of a work visa.
As the concept of digital nomadism becomes increasingly popular, various destinations are enacting programs to attract this group. Countries in the Caribbean and European Union (EU), in particular, are quickly joining the list of locations offering special visas and policies for digital nomads. Some require applicants to prove a minimum level of income, pay a visa or healthcare fee, or have a recent police background check completed. However, many destinations and hospitality service providers do not know where to start or what digital nomads are looking for; the research completed for the next section of this report seeks to answer some of those questions.
Living the Digital Nomad Lifestyle
The most popular reason for living as a digital nomad is being able to travel constantly, not only while on vacation. Other reasons respondents gave included the feeling of freedom, pushing their limits, learning foreign languages, exploring, flexibility, and being able to work with indigenous and local people.
While living as a digital nomad has its perks, respondents shared their difficulties as well. The top challenge was not being able to unplug and disconnect from work, although as digital nomads gain experience, they tend to find it easier to unplug.
Uncertainty is high all over the globe now, especially for travelers. This lifestyle can also lead to loneliness, potential financial difficulties, challenges collaborating and communicating, and a hard time staying motivated.
The most important things for digital nomads when choosing a destination are reliable internet service, weather, and a low cost of living. This group looks for destinations where they do not need to obtain a visa, or where it is easy to get and renew one. Cultural and natural destination attractions, security, and a good public transportation system are also important.
Reliable internet service is also the most sought-after feature when choosing an accommodation. When it is time to work, a suitable space and quiet room for meetings are also important. Being close to the beach or other destination attractions is more important than the room and property amenities, and digital nomads are looking for a place to interact with others. Access to public transportation was the least important item on the list.
Attracting Digital Nomads
In their February 9, 2021 webinar ‘Adapting Tourist Destinations For Remote Workers & Digital Nomads In 2021,’ Island Innovation made the following recommendations for destinations looking to attract digital nomads:
- Provide a temporary worker visa that is easy to access, navigate, and understand
- Help visitors connect with each other and the local community
- Offer extended stays and develop remote work villages
- Prioritize high-speed, cheap, and reliable internet throughout the destination
- Have a safe and effective airport health screening and tracking system
In addition to these recommendations, ATTA’s findings also focus on the need to help digital nomads disconnect from work and embrace their time off. This could include areas of an accommodation that encourage visitors to turn off their devices and interact with others or relax without technology.
On the other hand, loneliness is a common occurrence for digital nomads. Offering ways to connect with others locally and their friends and family back home can be beneficial, for example having widespread internet access in all parts of a destination. Tour operators and activity providers can host events or offer socialization opportunities for digital nomads living there temporarily. ATTA’s survey found that food is especially important for this group—they spend almost half as much on food as they do on their lodging—events and activities centered around local cuisine may be especially well-received.
Overall, community was a common thread within our research and findings from Island Innovation. Digital nomads use Facebook groups heavily to connect with others locally and get recommendations on places to go and things to do. Contributing to these groups in a helpful and professional way can assist businesses to connect with digital nomads and attract the ones in their local area.
Below is a list of general suggestions for businesses looking to attract digital nomads; download the report for more specific recommendations for destinations, accommodations, and tours and activities.
- Offer ways for digital nomads to unplug. All kinds of businesses can do something to help alleviate the pressure this group feels to always be connected to work. Cafes and other gathering places can have a section of their space dedicated as a “device-free zone,” instead offering alternatives like board games, displays about local history or events, activities such as cooking classes, and other ways to encourage in-person interaction to be present in that moment.
- On the other hand, also offer ways for them to easily connect with people at home. Although digital nomads want to interact with other travelers, they also want to maintain their connections with friends and family at home. Amenities such as quiet video calling areas, identified points at attractions with a reminder to take a selfie and post it on social media, and other reminders of their contacts at home will help alleviate this concern around losing contact.
- Give stability to combat uncertainty and do not apply too much financial pressure. Most digital nomads are freelancers or own their own business, meaning financial uncertainty is common. Businesses can offer discounts for paying in advance or suggesting flexible payment arrangements. Advertising long-term stays and any other ways of providing a routine or other stability is likely to be appealing.
- Provide ways for digital nomads to build a local community to avoid loneliness. In addition to staying in touch with friends and family at home, digital nomads want a sense of community locally, by meeting other travelers and interacting with the local people. Businesses could organize special events for this purpose, or make efforts to communicate existing local events to digital nomads.
- Make sure digital nomads can collaborate with the people they need to work with. Following the connection theme, the first priority of many digital nomads is making money to support their travels. They are going to be attracted to places with good internet, 24-hour workspaces to accommodate global schedules, and amenities like a coffee and snack bar to keep them fueled at all times of the day.
Current Digital Nomad Visa Offerings
Many countries are offering more flexible visas that go beyond the provisions of a tourist visa and allow visitors to work from within their borders. Below is a sampling of programs that are accurate as of February 2021; programs may have been added/removed/changed since that time.
Digital nomads can travel to the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda under its ‘Nomad Digital Residence’ program, provided they can show an income of at least $50,000 USD per year, pay an application fee between $1,500 and $3,000, and have proof of a police background check. Additional health requirements apply, such as a mandatory COVID-19 test and 48-hour quarantine, and applicants must provide proof of health insurance and agree to pay for any healthcare received during their time on the islands.
The ‘Barbados Welcome Stamp’ is a 12-month working holiday visa allowing visitors to work remotely from the island; this costs $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for families, and a minimum income of $50,000 per year is required. Bermuda offers a similar visa plan called ‘Work From Bermuda,’ but at a cost of only $263 and without a minimum income requirement. Similar to Antigua and Barbuda, they both require a mandatory COVID-19 test and proof of travel insurance. The Cayman Islands’ ‘Global Citizen Certificate (GCC)’ allows digital nomads to stay in their group of islands for up to two years, but individuals must provide proof of an annual salary of at least $100,000, and the visa costs $1,500 for two people and $500 per dependent. Curacao, Turks & Caicos, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic also welcome remote workers.
Two countries in the continental Americas have also created plans in the form of temporary residence visas. Costa Rica’s freelancer visa is called the Rentista; however, this is valid only for self-employed people or entrepreneurs, not employees for other companies. A small application fee applies, and those seeking the visa must prove a monthly income of $1,000 USD. For digital nomads looking to spend some time in Mexico, their Temporary Resident Visa is an option. This allows travelers to stay over 180 days and less than four years, if they can prove an average monthly bank account balance of approximately $20,000 USD or proof of approximately $1,200 USD in monthly income, and own a location-independent business and/or work remotely for a company based outside of Mexico. Panama also offers a digital nomad program.
Many countries in the European Union also offer some form of visa or program for digital nomads. Schengen (the EU passport-free zone that covers most of the European countries) has a short-stay visa that allows travelers to move within that area for stays up to 90 days for tourism or business purposes. However, visitors cannot stay within the Schengen Area for more than 90 days in a 180-day period of time.
In addition to the Schengen visa, some EU countries have their own programs with extra benefits and without the 90 day time restriction. Perhaps the most well-known digital nomad program in the EU is that from Estonia. This country is already highly digitally developed, with a unique e-residency program, “a government-issued digital identity and status that provides access to Estonia’s transparent digital business environment” and allows people located around the world to create and run an EU-based business. In June 2020, Estonia also implemented a one-year digital nomad and freelancer visa allowing work to go the opposite way; foreigners are allowed to live in the country while operating a location-independent business or working remotely for a company based outside of Estonia. Visa seekers must show earnings of at least approximately $4,000 USD per month for the 6 months prior to applying.
The Czech Republic’s Long Term Visa with the purpose of business allows digital nomads to stay for up to one year, provided they can show evidence of accommodation and approximately $5,000 USD in a bank account. Remote workers also must pay around $80 per month in local taxes. This visa is appropriate for travelers in a set list of trades, and a different visa called the Zivno is also available for freelancers. The country is known for fast and widely accessible internet and a low cost of living.
Portugal offers both a temporary resident visa and residence permit, the Título de Residência, for independent workers and entrepreneurs for one year. Digital nomads can renew this visa for up to 5 years, after which they can apply for permanent residence. Similar to other countries, proof of income of approximately $730 USD per month or other financial means, private travel/health insurance, and a criminal background check are required. Spain’s Self Employment Visa program also allows visitors to stay for up to one year, provided they can show proof of sufficient funds to “establish and maintain employment indefinitely,” a medical certificate of good health and proof of private Spanish health insurance, and a background check.
Germany’s ‘Freiberufler’ freelance visa requires applicants to have a “liberal” job and not a commercial profession, an address in Germany, and proof of health insurance and financial self-sustainability. Approved digital nomads also need to pay taxes to the German government, and work clients may need to be based in Germany, to show the arrangement is providing benefits to the local economy.
The Nordic countries are also making it easier for digital nomads to live and work within their regions. Iceland offers a long-term visa for workers earning over $85,000 USD per year, and Norway requires proof of earnings of around $45,000 USD per year before tax. As with Germany, Norway’s Independent Contractor visa also requires long-term visitors to be self-employed with a contract to work on a project for a business in Norway.
Outside the EU and the Americas, the countries of Georgia, Australia and Dubai have ways for digital nomads to work from within their borders. Georgia’s remote work visa, ‘Remotely from Georgia,’ is available for freelancers, business owners, or remote workers from approved countries looking to stay in Georgia for more than 180 days. This country is known for a low cost of living, vibrant cities, and gorgeous countryside vistas. New arrivals are required to undergo mandatory 14-day quarantine, obtain travel insurance valid for six months, and earn at least $2000 USD per month.
In the Pacific region, Australia’s ‘Working Holiday Visa’ is available for workers between 18 and 35 years of age, although their long-stay e600 Visitor Visa may be enough for some digital nomads. In the Middle East, Dubai’s new remote work and travel visa allows travelers access to all required services, including telecoms, utilities, and school, for a fee of $287 USD (and no ongoing income tax). Applicants must show at least 6 months on their passport, a one-year employment contract with at least $5,000 USD per month salary, or proof of ownership of a company, and medical insurance valid in the UAE. In the current (as of December 2020) global environment, the ‘Safe Travels’ stamp Dubai has earned from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) demonstrates their commitment to preventing the spread of COVID-19.
At least three more countries have stated their interest in programs that may attract digital nomads. Aruba’s 90-day ‘One Happy Workation’ may be a test run for a larger-scale program; U.S. nationals who are self-employed or employed by a company outside of Aruba (employment in Aruba is not allowed). Any visitors to Aruba are required to purchase mandatory visitors’ insurance of around $275 that covers the duration of their stay.
Croatia and Mauritius have also both announced plans to attract the new remote work segment, especially those looking to stay an extended period of time. It is likely that more destinations will explore this way to attract travelers in the COVID recovery period and beyond.