The pandemic is changing the digital nomad scene

About 300 miles off the coast of Morocco, a tiny archipelago seems like Portugal’s take on the classic Hawaiian getaway.

For one, there’s a noteworthy cultural connection between Madeira and its Pacific counterpart: Immigrants from this autonomous region of Portugal introduced the ukulele to Hawaii in the 19th century. Then there’s the tropical volcanic landscape, with terrain ideal for hiking and mountain biking. Now, both island destinations are hoping to attract remote workers to help prop up their largely tourism-driven economies, which have struggled throughout the ongoing pandemic.

In mid-December, Hawaii kicked off a long-term stay program for 50 out-of-staters to work remotely there. Madeira, which has maintained relatively low infection rates, launched a program earlier this month that takes the concept to another level — converting infrastructure in one coastal town to launch a community for digital nomads.

Digital Nomads Madeira Islands is akin to a summer camp for grown-ups. The program provides a free co-working space and helps find accommodations, which nomads rent privately. Organizers have dubbed it the first “digital nomad village” in the European Union.

A privileged class of workers have used the disruption of the pandemic and subsequent surge in remote work to become nomads. For some, it’s been an experience fraught with “covid grief,” “travel shaming” and even a few controversial deportations. Responsible nomads have temporarily chosen a new home base, but many are planning their post-pandemic moves. Digital nomad advocates say these new workers signal a much larger wave set to break as soon as travel restrictions ease.

“People are taking advantage of this new freedom they have to travel and work from different places,” says Gonçalo Hall, a nomad and remote work consultant who first pitched the idea of a digital nomad village to Madeira’s authorities in September.

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At first, Hall framed the village as a way for struggling communities to replace lost tourism revenue. But he sees this pandemic pilot of around 100 nomads — most of whom have come from throughout the European Union, all required to show negative coronavirus tests on arrival — as the start of a growing trend.

“I think this new remote work wave will allow more and more people to [become digital nomads].” At this point, he suggests, it’s only inevitable.

The rise of the ‘slowmads’

The pandemic has accelerated several predictions that Japanese technologist Tsugio Makimoto made 2½ decades ago in his book “Digital Nomad,” one of the first-known uses of the term. In the late-’90s, Makimoto said the digital revolution would eventually eliminate the need to live near your employer — or have an employer at all.

In the case of Madeira, thousands of people from around the world have expressed interest in joining the program in Ponta do Sol — far more than the few hundred the organizers originally expected. Of those respondents, about 50 percent decided to become nomads because of the pandemic, Hall estimates.

Newer nomads say the pandemic pushed them to take a more location-independent approach to their careers — sometimes out of necessity.

“The pandemic forced me to stop and reflect on my life, and gave me the time to develop as a ‘travelprenuer,’ ” Kesi Irvin said in an email. After covid-19 eliminated Irvin’s job as a host on sailing charters, she quickly had to pivot. As she had already built an audience on Instagram for her travel content, she decided to become a full-time blogger, relocating to Budapest in September.

Pandemic travel restrictions have halted the rapid pace of most nomads. But with increasing concerns over the aviation industry’s carbon footprint, as well as the negative impact of overtourism, some nomads plan to slow their roll even when they’re able to travel more freely. It’s a travel style sometimes referred to as “slowmad.”

“I actually was never a fan of the country-hopping, fast-paced rhythm of some travelers,” Gabby Beckford, a co-founder of the Black Travel Alliance, said in an email. She is better known on Instagram and TikTok as @packslight.

A year ago, Beckford quit her 9-to-5 engineering job to travel, but the pandemic kept her working remotely from her parent’s house in Virginia. At the start of 2021, she decided she “couldn’t stay home for another year,” so she relocated to Dubai. There, she says, she’s keeping an eye on the case counts. “With the vaccine rolling out,” she says, “I’m giving myself a bit of time to see how things evolve.” In the meantime, she is making a plan for what countries she might “‘slowmad’ through” once the public health conditions permit her to make her next move.

Nomad visas signal a paradigm shift

Nomads before the pandemic were mostly a niche group of millennials, many of whom promoted the #DigitalNomadLife on Instagram. They would live out of carry-on suitcases and often cross borders every few weeks, a pace set by the limits of short-term tourist visas.

This was an era of the “bromads” and the “life-hacking” popularized by self-help authors like Timothy Ferriss, who wrote the 2007 bestseller “The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich.” Ferriss preached a gospel of “geo-arbitrage” — the idea that money goes further in “cheaper” places than San Francisco or New York.

If “overtourism” defines the negative effects of an overwhelming number of tourists, then “overnomadism” seems like an apt way of describing what happened when this young class of jet-setters descended on popular destinations, from Bali and Berlin to Barcelona and Chiang Mai, Thailand. With destinations trending online and the influx of short-term rentals driving up rent, some cities began cracking down on Airbnb to tackle this brand of global gentrification.

But the economic crisis and covid-19 pandemic seems to have changed the tone in many destinations. A new category of “digital nomad visas” might make it easier for foreigners to legally stay in one place for longer periods of time. The visas also allow countries to target more mindful nomads in the process.

Last summer, Estonia became the first country to announce a digital nomad visa, which authorities believe appeals to a different type of traveler. “If you are the kind of digital nomad who would like to build long-lasting business relationships and friendships, a digital nomad visa can certainly get you into a more relaxed head space for when you approach social interactions,” says Florian Marcus, digital transformation adviser at the government agency e-Estonia.

So far, the tiny Baltic country has seen more than 10,000 people sign up for more information about its visa.

Related programs, including Barbados’ “Welcome Stamp” to Greece’s tax breaks for “digital migrants,” signal the international enthusiasm for allowing these highly mobile workers to stick around longer than most earlier nomads were permitted to. Croatia, a popular spot for nomads during the pandemic, recently approved the first foreigner, an American, for its new 12-month visa program.

“Right when the pandemic started, I was asked the question what we can do to turn Croatia into a year-round destination,” Jan de Jong says. The Netherlands-born, Zagreb-based entrepreneur wrote an open letter on LinkedIn last summer to Croatia’s prime minister. “Seeing a global trend of remote work being accelerated by covid-19, my thoughts were to start welcoming remote workers to Croatia.”

His viral post ultimately inspired the country to become among the few in Europe so far to approve a temporary residence permit for digital nomads. “Many more countries will follow,” he predicts.

People rest in the natural pool in the town of Porto Moniz on Madeira. (iStock)

Before the pandemic, Madeira’s tourism sector was booming, with more than a million annual visitors. When designed with participation from locals, nomad villages have the potential to bring in similar revenue as seasonal tourists, but with a smaller number of longer-term visitors, Hall says. He says the community partnerships might help this new wave of newbies avoid making “the same mistakes” pre-pandemic nomads commonly made such as “traveling too fast” and “not having a positive impact [on the locals].”

“These new people can learn from the more experienced people,” Hall says. “I don’t want all OGs. That would be Bali again. And I don’t want all newbies, either. That would be a weird environment. This new mixture is actually quite fun.”

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