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As countries ranging from Indonesia to Mexico aim to attract digital nomads, locals say 'not so fast'
Should your community welcome digital nomads – individuals who work remotely, allowing them freedom to bounce from country to country?
Our research has found that workers are eager to embrace the flexibility of not being tied to an office. And after experiencing economic losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and countries are concocting ways to entice visitors.
One idea involves stretching the meaning of tourism to include remote workers.
Today, a growing number of countries offer so-called “digital nomad visas.” These visas allow longer stays for remote workers and provide clarity about allowable work activities. For example, officials in Bali, Indonesia, are looking to formalize a process for remote workers to procure visas – “the faster, the better,” as the head of the island’s tourism agency put it.
As we explain in our new book, “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy,” the trend of “work tourism” comes with a host of drawbacks.
Wearing out their welcome
For as long as there’s been tourism, locals have griped about the outsiders who come and go. These travelers are usually a welcome boost to the economy – up to a point. They can also wear out their welcome.
Perhaps the classic example is Venice, where high numbers of tourists stress the canal-filled city’s fragile infrastructure.
In the U.S., New Jersey shore residents have long used the term “shoobies” to denigrate the annual throng of short-term summer tourists. In our research on digital nomads in Bali, locals referred to digital nomads and other tourists as “bules” – a word that roughly translates as “foreigners.”
Generally the terms are used to express minor annoyance over crowds and increased traffic. But conventional tourists come and go – their stays usually range from a couple of nights to a couple of weeks. Remote workers stay anywhere from weeks to months – or longer. They spend more time using places and resources traditionally dedicated to the local residents. This raises the chances that outsiders become a grating presence.
Excessive numbers of visitors can also raise sustainability concerns, as waves of tourists tax the environment and infrastructure of many destinations. Many of Bali’s beautiful rice fields and surrounding lush forests, for example, are being converted into hotels and villas to serve tourism.
Digital nomads look to stretch their dollars
Whether they’re lazing around or plugging away on their laptops, privileged tourists ultimately change the economics and demographics of an area.
Their buying power increases costs and displaces residents, while traditional businesses make way for ones that cater to their tastes. Where once there was a neighborhood food stand, now there’s an upscale cafe.
This dynamic is only exacerbated by long-term tourists. Services like VRBO and Airbnb make it easy for digital nomads to rent apartments for weeks or months at a time, and people around the world are increasingly alarmed at how quickly such rentals can change the affordability and character of a place.
Living a vacation lifestyle on a long-term basis implies a need to choose lower-cost destinations. This means that remote workers may particularly contribute to gentrification as they seek out places where their dollars go furthest.
In Mexico City, residents fear displacement by remote workers able to pay higher rents. In response to calls to choose Mexico City as a remote working destination, one local succinctly expressed opposition: “Please don’t.”
And in New Orleans, almost half of all properties in the historic Tremé district – one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the U.S. – have been converted to short-term rentals, displacing longtime residents.
Culture becomes commodified
Neocolonialism in tourism refers to the way processes such as overtourism and gentrification create a power imbalance that favors newcomers and erodes local ways of life.
“There’s a distinction between people who want to learn about the place they are in and those who just like it because it’s cheap,” one digital nomad living in Mexico City recently told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ve met a number of people who don’t really care that they’re in Mexico, they just care that it’s cheap.”
Bali, where as much as 80% of the island’s economy is estimated to be affected by tourism, offers a stark example.
People come to Bali to be immersed in the culture’s spiritual rituals, art, nature and dance. But there’s also resentment over yoga lovers, resortgoers and digital nomads “taking over” the island. And some locals come to see the tourism in and around temples and rituals as the transformation of something cherished – the nuanced and spiritual aspects of their culture – into experiences to be bought and sold.
For instance, Balinese dance performances are huge tourist draws and are even featured in global promotions for tourism on the island. Yet these performances also have cultural and spiritual meaning, and the impact of tourism on these aspects of dance is debated even among performers.
So there is inevitably friction, which can be seen in the high levels of petty crime against foreigners. Neocolonialism can also pit people from the same country or culture against one another. For example, conflicts arise between local Balinese taxi cooperatives and taxi services that employ drivers from other parts of Indonesia.
Although remote employees still make up a small portion of the overall tourist population, their work-related needs and longer stays mean they’re more likely to use services and places frequented by locals.
Whether this leads digital nomads to be welcomed or scorned likely depends on both government policies and tourists’ behavior.
Will governments take measures such as protecting locals from mass evictions, or will landlords’ desire for higher rents prevail? Will guests live lightly and blend in, trying to learn the local language and culture? Or will they simply focus on working hard and playing harder?
As remote work reaches an unprecedented scale, the answers to such questions may determine whether “the faster, the better” attitude toward digital nomad visas and other incentives continues.