Dubai and Mexico have become key destinations for foreign online workers

Will COVID-19 unleash a new generation of digital nomads? 

photo_camera AFP/LOIC VENANCE - With COVID-19 facilitating the widespread adoption of remote working practices, some emerging markets are looking to attract digital nomads

With COVID-19 facilitating the widespread adoption of remote working practices, some emerging markets are seeking to attract digital nomads through a range of incentives and special visas. 

Despite border closures and travel restrictions resulting from the virus, several countries are stepping up efforts to encourage the movement of so-called digital nomads, people who work remotely and relocate relatively freely. 

For example, in October, the Dubai government launched its virtual work programme, an initiative that gives foreign professionals the opportunity to move to the emirate and continue working remotely in their current jobs. 

The one-year programme, launched after Dubai reopened its borders to international tourists in July last year, is designed to attract professionals, entrepreneurs and those working in start-ups. 

Given its strong ICT infrastructure and healthy start-up scene, Dubai has been seen as an increasingly attractive option for digital nomads in recent years, with officials promoting the emirate as a place where people can live and work by the beach. 

As an added incentive, officials began offering free vaccinations to programme participants in January. 

Mexico enhances its appeal 

Another emerging market that has become an increasingly attractive proposition for digital nomads during the pandemic is Mexico. 

A number of remote workers, particularly from the US and Canada, moved to the country over the course of 2020. 

While Mexico, the US and Canada agreed in January to restrict non-essential travel between the countries as a result of the surge in infections, a measure that will remain in place until the end of February, Mexico's more liberal approach to its border throughout 2020 stands in contrast to many other countries in the region. 

For example, Colombia and Peru kept their borders closed for much of last year, and Trinidad and Tobago is unlikely to reopen its borders in the foreseeable future. 

On top of this, the ability of US citizens to acquire a six-month visa on arrival is a significant incentive for digital nomads, along with the flexibility of the country's Temporary Resident Visa, which allows foreigners to stay between 180 days and four years. 

This has meant that some places in Mexico, such as Tulum on the Caribbean coast, have been particularly busy as a result of the surge in foreign workers. 

In a sign that many expect this boost to be more than temporary, in February last year, hotel operator Selina, which specialises in accommodation for digital nomads, announced that it was looking to expand its offering in Mexico. The company said it would invest $150 million over a two-year period, increasing its number of hotel and hostel beds from around 2,300 to 10,000. 

Competition from developed and high-income countries 

Emerging markets are not alone in seeking to attract digital nomads. 

Following the collapse of global tourism as a result of COVID-19, several high-income Caribbean nations turned to incentivising such immigration as a way of countering the economic consequences of the virus. 

In July, Barbados launched its Welcome Stamp programme. Within 48 hours of submitting a successful application and paying the $2,000 application fee, eligible remote workers will be able to live in the country for one year. 

This was followed in August by the launch of the Work From Anguilla programme, which similarly offers visas to online workers for up to one year;

Cayman Islands, Bermuda and Montserrat have similar initiatives 

This approach has also been replicated in Europe, with Croatia, Greece and the regional government of the Portuguese island of Madeira introducing incentives to attract foreign remote workers. 

Meanwhile, the Estonian government, which since 2014 has hosted a pioneering e-residency programme designed to attract start-ups and entrepreneurs, updated its offering in August last year with the launch of a special visa for digital nomads, allowing remote workers to live and work in the countryside for a year. 

Digital nomads: the new normal? 

With COVID-19 facilitating a massive shift towards remote working, the digital nomad phenomenon is set for continued expansion in the coming years, as companies get rid of expensive office space and employers and employees become more accustomed to working remotely. 

In fact, the trend was on the rise even before the pandemic, facilitated by the growth of coworking spaces and the establishment of digital nomad-oriented companies. 

One such company is Outside, based in California, which offers coworking spaces, online platforms and services for remote workers. The company has eight locations in the US. And nine in other parts of the world, including Tulum and San Jose del Cabo in Mexico; Ericeira and Lisbon in Portugal; and Bali. 

As borders gradually open and travel resumes, more emerging markets will seek to capitalise on the growing trend of digital nomads looking for affordable, reliable and attractive places to work from.