I've heard the complaint so many times from digital nomad thought leaders:
"Digital nomad visas are disappointing; they're essentially just remote work visas. Why don't governments understand us? Why don't they recognize our needs? Why don't they provide what we truly desire?"
Before delving further into this topic, let me clarify some key definitions.
While by no means canonical, the following breakdown of 'remote workers versus digital nomads' is based on distinctions commonly made by digital nomad thought leaders:
Remote Workers vs. Digital Nomads
|Category||Remote Worker||Digital Nomad|
|Definition||Employee or freelancer working from home or any location other than a company office, usually within the same country.||An individual who leverages technology to work remotely while traveling and exploring different locations, often internationally.|
|Location||Typically settled in one location (home or co-working space) in their home country or as a semi-permanent 'ex-pat' abroad.||Constantly on the move, changing locations frequently, often across different countries.|
|Work Style||Work with a consistent schedule, adhering to their employer's or client's time zone and work hours.||Work with a more flexible schedule, adapting to different time zones and adjusting to the demands of their travel itinerary.|
|Duration||Long-term commitment to a single location, with occasional travel for leisure or work.||Short-term stays in various locations, typically ranging from a few weeks to several months.|
|Emigration Intent||Will consider permanent emigration, as they don't see themselves as inherently nomadic and are looking to 'have roots'.||May consider permanent emigration depending on the appeal of a specific location, but generally maintain a fluid, borderless lifestyle.|
|Visa Requirements||Usually pursue the appropriate temporary or permanent work visa to be on-side with working abroad.||Often use tourist visas, or simply operate in a grey area with respect to visa status.|
|Tax Status||Assume they will become a resident of whatever country in which they are resident and pay tax accordingly.||Whether out of a sense that they are transitory and stateless, or out of explicit libertarianism, have a tendency to resist tax obligations in the pursuit of their lifestyle.|
As digital nomads explore the world, enticed by the promise of limitless freedom and numerous privileges, they might not fully recognize the mutual obligations inherent in relationships with nation-states. These traveling remote work enthusiasts (a group I count myself among) may inadvertently seek liberty without fully comprehending the mindset of the countries from which they wish to extract mobility, work, and visitation privileges.
In their pursuit of self-actualization, digital nomad evangelists may indeed neglect the needs and concerns of the societies they engage with. But I am not specifically concerned, in this piece, with unpacking the complex topic of gentrification.
I am more interested in pushing for a more mature form of pragmatism from digital nomad leaders, with a specific aim — to encourage us to be better at getting digital nomad visas created and ratified into law.
The Potential and Responsibilities of the Digital Nomad Movement
I am a strong advocate for greater freedom of mobility, and I wholeheartedly support the digital nomad movement in its pursuit of fostering a freer society. Just as previous social movements have contributed to the development of our modern, liberalized world over the past four centuries, I believe that the digital nomad movement has the potential to further enrich and enhance our global community.
While enjoying the benefits of short-term rentals, public, taxpayer-funded infrastructure, and local resources, digital nomads must consider the potential consequences of their actions on local communities. This awareness is essential not merely as a moral gesture of goodwill but also to become better and more effective negotiators in their interactions with various stakeholders.
As mentioned earlier, digital nomads, often characterized by their fluid and borderless lifestyles, frequently express frustration with 'remote work visas.' These visas seem to carry an implicit assumption that visa holders are taking a preliminary step toward permanent emigration.
This expectation may not align with the unique preferences and priorities of many digital nomads, who generally thrive on working and living in various locations, free from conventional expectations of settling down in one place.
Challenges and Limitations of Remote Work Visas Misclassified as Digital Nomad Visas
For digital nomads, the allure of their lifestyle lies in the freedom to explore and experience diverse cultures while maintaining their professional commitments. Remote work visas (often somewhat misclassified as 'digital nomad visas'), while designed to facilitate this way of life to some extent, may inadvertently impose limitations on the very essence of digital nomadism.
The underlying assumption that these so-called 'digital nomad' visas serve as a precursor to permanent residency might inadvertently create pressure on digital nomads to commit to a specific country, potentially hindering their fluid lifestyles.
Furthermore, the assumption of future emigration or a 'try-before-you-buy' intention for remote work visas may be entirely misplaced, as many digital nomads might not actually have any intention of emigrating permanently.
Instead, they may wish to participate in the societies they temporarily inhabit, generating economic activity and fostering cultural exchange, without the long-term commitment that permanent residency entails.
Recognizing the Value of Digital Nomads for Societies and Economies
The transient lifestyle of digital nomads, though seemingly at odds with the age-old social contract binding citizens to their nation-states, does not have to be incompatible with the principles of reciprocity and mutual benefit.
Governments worldwide may be more open to creating special exceptions for digital nomads if they recognize the value these individuals can bring to their societies.
Societies will absolutely want to attract knowledge workers in a world where depopulation, AI-driven job erosion, and migrations threaten the economic health of communities worldwide.
But they won't abandon self-interest and just fall over themselves to attract digital nomads out of the goodness of their hearts. Nations have interests and concerns.
The Libertarian Voice in Digital Nomadism
It's important to acknowledge that there is at least a third 'remote work' group with a voice as well: libertarians who want to structure their life to maximize their freedom and business income and reduce their tax, often seeking to reduce their tax to 0%.
While they share some similarities with digital nomads, such as the desire for location independence, they have a different, more libertarian vision for their lifestyle, often involving the promotion of cryptocurrencies alongside fiat money in their financial plans.
These individuals often identify less as digital nomads and more as sovereign individuals or, derogatorily or lovingly depending on who you ask, as "passport bros."
For these libertarians, their goal is not just to travel the world and work remotely, but to do so in a way that minimizes their obligations to nation-states and maximizes their individual freedom. They are less concerned with the social and economic impact of their actions on local communities and more focused on their own personal autonomy.
While their perspective is valid, it's important to note that it differs from the more community-focused approach of most digital nomads.
To clarify, the focus of this piece is primarily on the digital nomad community that is more focused on community impact and reciprocity with nation-states.
While the libertarian voice is an undoubtedly influential voice to consider within the larger conversation surrounding digital nomadism, it is not the main focus of this piece.
Improving Communication and Negotiation Strategies for Digital Nomad Leaders
Digital nomad thought leaders could improve the way they communicate the value they bring to societies. Similar to passionate yet inexperienced salespeople or job interviewees, they tend to focus excessively on why nomad visa programs would be beneficial for them, while not sufficiently emphasizing the potential advantages of a transactional relationship for the other party.
To successfully negotiate with governments and secure favorable conditions for the digital nomad movement, nomads must approach the situation with a solid understanding of stakeholder negotiations and deal-making. It is essential for both parties to perceive value in the agreement. By providing tangible contributions to the societies they aim to inhabit, digital nomads can present a persuasive case for their distinct lifestyles.
Digital nomad leaders often appear to lack a convincing argument for why they should be prioritized on the same level as remote workers, relying too often on unspecific notions of being special, cool, trendsetters who merit unique treatment.
Addressing The Valid Concerns of Nation-States in Digital Nomad Visa Advocacy
Nation-states and cities have valid concerns, and although digital nomads might not share or even agree with these issues, disregarding them as 'antiquated' or 'backward' is counterproductive when negotiating with jurisdictions for the creation of highly permissive visa programs.
When metaphorically sitting across the negotiating table from a stakeholder, it is vital to address their concerns with sincerity and understanding. Ignoring the issues they raise not only demonstrates suboptimal advocacy and activism but also reflects inadequate negotiation tactics. Digital nomad thought leaders should address the following concerns that nations might have when considering a true 'digital nomad' visa in good faith and head-on:
Limited economic contribution
Digital nomads typically have a short-term presence in a country, which may result in lower overall spending and financial contributions compared to long-term residents or permanent emigrants.
Tax revenue concerns
Digital nomads often maintain their tax residency elsewhere, leading to potential difficulties in collecting taxes from them or ensuring they pay their fair share for the services they use in the host country.
The strain on local resources
Digital nomads can contribute to the demand for short-term housing, increasing rental prices and potentially exacerbating housing affordability issues for local residents.
The transient nature of digital nomads may make it difficult for them to integrate fully into local communities, leading to concerns about social cohesion and the preservation of local customs and values.
Labor market competition
Digital nomads may compete with local professionals for job opportunities or freelance gigs, potentially creating tension and resentment among local workers.
Legal and regulatory challenges
The unique circumstances of digital nomads can present difficulties for governments in establishing appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks for remote work, visas, and tax compliance. The politicians who can create these visas may also simply have a voting base that opposes the movement.
Governments may highly prefer to allocate resources and focus on attracting long-term residents or permanent emigrants who are more likely to make significant, lasting contributions to the local economy and society.
The constant movement of digital nomads may raise concerns about national security and border control, particularly when it comes to tracking and vetting individuals who enter and exit the country frequently.
I just want to make it clear that when one is traveling to places like Dubrovnik, Mexico City, or Costa Rica as a digital nomad, the main goals are to have a blast, meet new people, stay on top of work, and keep yourself and your family safe.
Honestly, almost no one wants to spend all day thinking about sociology, political science, national governance, national security, or microeconomics every time they touch down in a new country.
But I really, really want the digital nomad movement (and the digital nomad visa movement) to succeed. So, it wouldn't hurt to spend some time reflecting on what nation-states and countries value, what they want, and what they're afraid of.
Understanding these factors more deeply can significantly impact the advocacy work needed to help the nomad movement flourish and bridge the gap between the current state of remote work visas and the utopia that digital nomads envision just beyond the horizon.
Pragmatic arguments for supporting digital nomadism
In summary, these are some of the biggest mistakes I see digital nomad advocates making:
- Focusing on how amazing the flexibility of the digital nomad lifestyle is without adequately addressing concerns about economic contributions and tax compliance
- Relying on unspecific notions of being trendsetters and special individuals who merit unique treatment, without providing enough concrete evidence of value to local economies
- Ignoring the concerns and priorities of local communities and governments, leading to a lack of trust and cooperation
- Failing to appreciate the mutual obligations inherent in relationships with nation-states, and seeking mobility and privileges without fully comprehending the mindset of the countries from which they wish to extract these benefits
- Neglecting to address the potential consequences of their actions on local communities, such as contributing to the demand for short-term housing and exacerbating housing affordability issues
Here are some pragmatic arguments that digital nomad thought leaders can make, without relying on abstract concepts like "a movement is underway" and "we're special," in order to persuade nations to consider digital nomad visas:
Digital nomads can highlight how their presence can create jobs and opportunities for locals, such as through their need for local services and collaboration with local businesses. They can also show how their unique skill sets can complement and enhance the local workforce, leading to more innovation and growth.
Longer Stays and Repeat Visits
Digital nomads can argue that by creating a dedicated digital nomad visa pathway, they are more likely to stay longer and make repeat visits to the country, leading to more sustained economic impact and growth. They can also show how their positive experiences and word-of-mouth recommendations can attract more tourists and visitors to the country.
Branding and Marketing
Digital nomads can showcase how their presence and activities in the country can contribute to a positive image and reputation, both locally and globally. They can also highlight how their social media and online presence can help promote the country as a desirable destination for remote workers, entrepreneurs, and investors.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Digital nomads can demonstrate how their unique perspectives and experiences can lead to more innovation and entrepreneurship in the country, through collaboration with local startups, incubators, and accelerators. They can also show how their networks and connections can open up new markets and opportunities for local businesses.
Boosting the Tourism Industry
Digital nomads can demonstrate how their presence can contribute to the growth of the local tourism industry, as they are likely to explore and spend money in the local area. By creating a dedicated digital nomad visa pathway, the country can attract more digital nomads who are interested in exploring the local culture and way of life.
Digital nomads can act as a beacon for remote workers, attracting valuable taxpaying individuals who are seeking a supportive environment for their remote work lifestyle. By creating a dedicated digital nomad visa pathway, countries can tap into the initial buzz and interest generated by digital nomads, and use it to attract and retain other remote workers. As digital nomads spread the word about their positive experiences in the country, they can create a halo effect that draws in a wider range of high-skilled and high-value remote workers. This can lead to significant economic benefits for the country, as it attracts a cohort of taxpaying individuals who can contribute to the local economy and society in meaningful ways.
Digital nomad thought leaders must shift their focus from self-promotion to stakeholder value creation, demonstrating how the movement can positively impact local economies and societies.
This requires a deeper understanding of stakeholder concerns and priorities, as well as a commitment to addressing them in a constructive and sincere manner.
By doing so, digital nomads can build trust, cooperation, and lasting partnerships that benefit everyone involved. Ultimately, it's not just about what digital nomads want, but rather, how effectively they can convince nations that they will contribute to a net positive outcome.