Michael Fowler is a contributor to traveller.com.au.
OPNION: The average one is in their late 20s to early 30s. Western. Male. Speaks English. Works with only their laptop while travelling.
Bugger. I fit all that criteria.
And it’s true. Life as a digital nomad seemed like a utopia when I resigned from my full-time journalism job last May. I could work on my own schedule in a place where the sun always shines and my dollars take me further.
Now, though, I want zero association with the title “digital nomad” and all its connotations.
Laptop-fuelled imperialism is the term I use. Foreign gentrification is a toned-down version. Either way, the phenomenon certainly feels like the 2023 version of getting all up in developing countries’ business with some obvious advantages for the rich and few for the less rich.
I’ve spent most of the past year on the new frontier: Latin America. Many remote workers here come from the United States, which contributes nearly 17 million digital nomads worldwide – about half the world’s total.
But nowhere is really safe in our post-pandemic world. More than 50 countries now offer digital nomad visas and dozens more are littered with workers registered as tourists. Southeast Asia is a popular choice, particularly for Australians, (as is South Africa among Europeans, who can work in the same time zone).
The first warning sign is when they introduce themselves as digital nomads. Suddenly you’ve been co-opted into a pitch about their crowd-seeded transformative blockchain engineering project and no, it’s not the same as cryptocurrency, and yes, they will explain why. Last year I booked the wrong hostel in Lisbon, where the common room was no site for mischief but rather some kind of keyboard-punching, hyper-capitalist library.
Then you start to hear stories from locals.
Unlike travelling visitors, nomads prefer options such as Airbnb instead of hotels or hostels. In Mexico City, where I’m writing this, the average resident earns $5.50 per hour or $11,000 a year.
The average rent in popular expat suburbs such as Roma and Condesa has ballooned 1.5 times compared to January 2020. It reaches $3500 per month in some areas.
One couple in the middle-class suburb of Juarez was paying 10,000 pesos (NZ$940) per month until their landlord shifted to Airbnb last year. The rent more than tripled overnight to 35,000 pesos (NZ$3295), they told Latin American news outlet Contxto.
Hospitality prices inevitably follow as restaurant owners test how high their prices can go.
It’s noticeable as you explore neighbourhoods. Walk around El Poblado, a popular expat area in Medellin, Colombia, and you’ll observe plenty more poached eggs, hotcakes and matcha teas than restaurants by locals, for locals. Or buildings that should be housing or shopfronts instead advertising “hot desking”.
Facebook groups tell a similar story of detachment from the average local’s life. It took two minutes to pull these out of a ‘Medellin expats’ group, which I naively joined with the hope of making friends.
“Good steak restaurants? Nothing too fancy I still have to pay my Netflix bill LOL,” reads one post.
Another gentleman asked: “Hello ex pats [sic], I am considering living in Medellin. My other option is Guadalajara, Mexico. Has anyone been to both cities? Which has a higher concentration of beautiful women?”
Of course, it’s not all bad. One study suggests the average digital nomad earns $133,000 per year and spends 35% of that on food, accommodation, entertainment and daily essentials. (“Business tourism” contributed $1.48 billion to Colombia’s economy in 2019 – a figure that will grow as more remote workers arrange conferences and events.)
Still, try selling the benefits to the average resident. From Medellin to Buenos Aires to Barcelona the most popular expat areas are plastered with posters and graffiti not so politely demanding: “Gringos (foreigners) go home”.
Evidently, governments will increasingly have to act.
One option is to start extracting more from their new visas. Spain, for example, has set up a website where small or underpopulated villages seeking revitalisation can advertise themselves to new arrivals. The country also offers tax discounts for nomads who opt to pay theirs in Spain.
One Harvard Business Review analysis of 46 digital nomad visas found that only 11 countries collected income tax. One is Mexico, where it’s estimated that attracting just 5% of the United States’ nomads would net $5.9 million per year that could go directly into public projects.
Private operators could also play a role. Hubud, a co-working space in Bali, organises local collaborations where digital nomads can participate in garbage clean-ups or build websites for schools.
I’d love more accessible ways of contributing to whichever city I’m in, as I’m sure others would.
Already I try my best to be different to the average digital nomad. I put in effort to get to know people and their language. I shop at local markets. I’ve volunteered in jungle lodges and migrant refuges.
Is that enough? Absolutely not, and I’m inherently part of the problem.
But if people like me can at least think about balancing the ledger, the world’s most popular new lifestyle could start to address some of society’s problems – not just exacerbate them.