How countries are capitalising on the digital nomad lifestyle

With Covid-19 facilitating the widespread adoption of remote work practices, some emerging markets are seeking to attract so-called digital nomads through a series of incentives and special visas. Despite border closures and travel restrictions resulting from the virus, various countries are stepping up efforts to incentivise the movement of digital nomads – people who work remotely and relocate relatively freely.

Pick Your Spot

In October 2020 Dubai launched its virtual working programme, an initiative that gives foreign professionals the opportunity to move to the emirate and continue to work remotely in their current jobs. The one-year programme, launched after the emirate reopened its borders to international tourists in July 2020, is designed is attract professionals, entrepreneurs and those working in start-ups. The programme was extended to the whole of the UAE in March 2021.

Another emerging market that has become an attractive proposition for digital nomads during the pandemic is Mexico. A number of remote workers – particularly from the US and Canada – relocated to the country during 2020. While in January 2021 Mexico, the US and Canada agreed to restrict non-essential travel between the countries as a result of a spike in infections – a measure that remained in place until the end of February – Mexico’s more liberal travel policies throughout 2020 contrasted with many other countries in the region. For example, Colombia and Peru kept their borders shut for much of the year. On top of this, the ability of US citizens to acquire a six-month visa on arrival constitutes a significant incentive for digital nomads, alongside the flexibility of the country’s Temporary Resident Visa, which allows foreigners to stay for between 180 days and four years. This has meant that some locations in Mexico, such as Tulum on the Caribbean coast, have been particularly lively as a result of the increase in foreign workers. In a sign that many expect this boost to be more than temporary, in February 2020 hotel operator Selina – which specialises in accommodation for digital nomads – announced that it was looking to expand its offerings in Mexico. The company said it would invest $150m over a two-year period, increasing its number of hotel and hostel beds from around 2300 to 10,000.

However, emerging markets are not the only countries looking to attract digital nomads. Following the collapse of global tourism, a number of high-income Caribbean nations turned to incentivising such immigration as a way to offset the economic fallout of the virus. In 2020 Barbados, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Montserrat launched initiatives allowing remote workers to live in their countries, often for up to one year. The approach has been replicated in Europe, with Croatia, Greece and the government of the Portuguese island of Madeira unveiling incentives to attract foreign remote workers. The government of Estonia – which pioneered an e-residency programme designed to attract start-ups and entrepreneurs in 2014 – updated its offering in August 2020 with a special digital nomad visa.

Working Remotely

With Covid-19 facilitating a mass shift towards remote work, the number of digital nomads in the world is set to grow as businesses offload expensive office space and employers and employees alike become more accustomed to working remotely. In fact, this shift was under way even before the pandemic, facilitated by the growth of co-working spaces and the establishment of digital nomad-oriented companies. The UAE was among those leading the shift to remote work. During the pandemic the government implemented a remote work system in the private sector to protect employees, and established a set of guidelines including the reduction of staff present in offices to 30% and the provision of screening devices such a thermometers. As borders reopen and travel resumes, more emerging markets will likely look to capitalise on the growing trend of digital nomads looking for affordable, safe and unique places from which to work.

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