As countries from Indonesia to Mexico seek to attract digital nomads, locals say ‘not so fast’

(The Conversation is an independent, nonprofit source for news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts.)

Rachael A. Woldoff, West Virginia University and Robert Litchfield, Washington & Jefferson College

(THE TALK) Should your community welcome digital nomads, people who work remotely, allowing them the freedom to move from one country to another?

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 inventing ways to attract visitors.

One idea is to expand the meaning of tourism to include remote workers.

Today, a growing number of countries offer so-called “digital nomad visas”. These visas allow for longer stays for remote workers and provide clarity on permitted work activities. For example, officials in Bali, Indonesia, are seeking to formalize a process for remote workers to obtain visas: “the faster the better,” as the head of the island’s tourism agency put it.

However, the pushback of locals in cities ranging from Barcelona to Mexico City has made it clear that the influx of remote workers has costs and benefits.

As we explain in our new book, “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy,” the “work tourism” trend comes with a number of drawbacks.

Wearing out your welcome

For as long as tourism has existed, locals have complained about outsiders coming and going. These travelers are usually a welcome boost to the economy, up to a point. They can also wear down your welcome.

Perhaps the classic example is Venice, where a large number of tourists emphasize the fragile infrastructure of the city full of canals.

In the US, residents of the New Jersey shore have long used the term “shoobies” to denigrate the annual throng of short-lived 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 to “foreigners.”

In general, the terms are used to express minor annoyances from crowds and increased traffic. But conventional tourists come and go, their stays usually ranging 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 local residents. This increases the chances that strangers will become an irritating presence.

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Excessive visitor numbers can also raise sustainability concerns, as influxes 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 looking to stretch their dollars

Whether they’re lazing around or plugging in their laptops, privileged tourists ultimately change the economy and demographics of an area.

Their purchasing power drives up costs and displaces residents, while traditional businesses give way to those who cater to their tastes. Where there used to be a neighborhood food stall, there is now an upscale cafeteria.

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, and people around the world are increasingly alarmed at how quickly these rentals can change the affordability and character of a place.

Living a long-term vacation lifestyle implies the need to choose lower-cost destinations. This means that remote workers can particularly contribute to gentrification as they look for places where their money goes further.

In Mexico City, residents fear being displaced by remote workers who can pay higher rents. In response to calls to choose Mexico City as a remote work destination, one local succinctly expressed his opposition: “Please, no.”

And in New Orleans, nearly half of all properties in the Tremé Historic District, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in the US, have been converted to short-term rentals, displacing long-time residents.

Culture is commodified

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