Work All Over the World Without Ruining It: Ethics for Digital Nomads
It was happy hour at the whitewashed hotel on the remote volcanic island of Salina, perched in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a short hydrofoil ride from northern Sicily. Around the pool, honeymooning couples, including my husband and me, drank tamarind margaritas and watched the sunset against Salina's sister island Stromboli, which puffed out plumes of volcanic smoke into the encroaching dusk.
It was as romantic as I hoped it would be when booking the trip a year earlier – with one unanticipated and starkly unromantic caveat. A woman on one of the sun loungers had Zoomed into her New York work meeting, running through a pitch deck and talking loudly about ROI.
People run away to remote islands on vacation to pretend for a moment that the real world – the world of corporate culture and incessant demands on your time and energy – doesn't exist. But with that one Zoom call, the mirage was dispelled. All of the disbelief we had collectively suspended came crashing down as we were sucked, unwillingly, into someone else's remote working experience.
As good, reliable Wi-Fi becomes available in increasingly far-flung locations, there are few places it's truly impossible to work from. I'm not immune to the lure of this lifestyle myself. I'm definitely guilty of camping at tables with plug sockets in coffee shops around Europe. But I came away from my honeymoon experience asking the question: Just because you can work from anywhere these days, does that mean you should?
A "digital nomad" is someone who works remotely for several months in a location before moving on. Over the last decade, working and living as a digital nomad has become increasingly popular. Particularly in the last few years, as pandemic restrictions ease, the movement has exploded. In the US alone, 16.9 million people described themselves as digital nomads last year, a 131% increase from 7.3 million in 2019, according to research from MBO Partners.
Such a monumental rise creates the potential to disrupt far more than tourists' sunset cocktails. Wherever nomads go, they pass through established local communities, occupying housing, interacting with local business owners and contributing to an ongoing shift in local demographics and economies.
On social media, digital nomads make their lives look idyllic – working from the beach, moving with the seasons, living the high life for relatively little money compared to the cost of their lifestyles back home.
But this is far from the full story. Increasingly, wealthy digital nomads are finding themselves in conflict with local populations, who don't see the presence of these newcomers to their community as a win-win.
Many nomads assume that, as with regular tourists, the injection of money they bring will mean they're welcome wherever they go. This is sometimes the case, but nomads also have a tendency to bunch up in hotspots, and in doing so they don't always endear themselves to the local communities.
From Lisbon to Mexico City, locals are holding nomads responsible for forcing up rents, taking up valuable resources… for taking things period, without any effort to give back or integrate. The American-Palestinian comedian Atheer Yacoub summed it up in a recent TikTok video. "So I came to work abroad for a couple of weeks as a digital nomad, and after meeting other digital nomads, I realized we're just gentrifiers with laptops."
The forces driving people to nomadism
In her seminal 2017 book Nomadland, which later became an Oscar-winning movie, the writer Jessica Bruder characterized US residents choosing to live their lives on the road as "surviving America."
Six years and a pandemic later, the world is once again in economic turmoil. For some, surviving America is no longer enough. They are escaping it altogether.
Marko Ayling, a former travel YouTuber from the US now resident in Mexico City, describes nomadism as "this weird expression of the millennial dream." Millennials graduated into a financial recession and fought to get jobs and climb the corporate ladder, while being blasted with images of people traveling the world all across social media.
"When remote work happens, suddenly we have a whole generation that's like, I'm fucking sick of waiting," says Ayling. "I can't afford to buy a house in my hometown. I'm going to go out in the world."
Digital nomadism isn't solely a post-pandemic way of life, but over the past few years, people based in existing digital nomad hotspots are reporting a boom in the number of newcomers pouring in. Some are taking advantage of more flexible remote working policies introduced due to COVID. Others are indulging in "revenge travel," in which they compensate for several years of no vacations.
Almost universally, a major motivating factor among US nomads seems to be geoarbitrage – earning money in a strong currency and then living in a country where the local currency is weaker and the cost of living lower.
For Americans, especially those working high-income jobs in tech, this can make nomadism a highly profitable life choice. But with the cost of living and housing crises impacting more and more people, digital nomadism can seem like a financially responsible and freeing option even for Americans not earning vast tech salaries.
Digital nomadism isn't a purely American phenomenon, but the movement is dominated by US citizens. There are few reliable statistics about the demographic makeup of digital nomads, but the most widely cited source tends to be the destination information website Nomad List, which said in its 2023 survey that 47% of nomads registered to its service were from the US. The next most common nationality for nomads was British, at 7%.
Even with some US employers reneging on their remote working policies, there are no signs of digital nomadism slowing down. Indeed, the lifestyles and learnings of today's location-independent remote workers may provide a global model to help weather converging crises, including financial precarity, climate change and political instability.
In her book Nomad Century, the writer Gaia Vince discusses how humans have always been a migratory species and will continue to be in the future. Vince argues that over the coming century, the climate crisis will demand more flexibility and movement from us all.
Nomads are showing us how we might do this, but not everyone can replicate their experience. At the heart of the conflict between nomads and the communities they enter are fundamental inequalities. Not only do nomads from North America and Europe have the financial resources to fund a lifestyle in which they're always on the move, they benefit from passport privilege. They can gain temporary access to almost any country they want to spend time with little to no hassle.
"Most digital nomads for the first 10 years of the movement, from about 2010, were traveling around the world on tourist visas, which, while it was a fringe movement on the side, wasn't such an issue," says Lauren Razavi, a digital nomad and director of special projects for nomad insurance provider Safety Wing.
In the last few years, governments have started to notice the rise in digital nomads visiting their countries and have responded by introducing special visas to encourage remote workers. But these are still not open to everyone.
Razavi is working with governments to encourage them to introduce international standards as to who can access their country on a nomad visa. SafetyWing wants governments to deprioritize country of origin in deciding who to grant visas to, and focus instead on the nomad's profession and income in order to provide more equal access to the nomadic lifestyle.
Over the last 10 to 15 years, nomads have tended to flow from developed countries to emerging economies. But Razavi expects that to change, especially as economies in Asia and Latin America grow stronger. "I think we are going to see that kind of flip and shift as the world is globalized," she says.
One thing nomads can do to help, if they want to work remotely in a country, is to advocate for people in that country to have access to remote working too, says Ayling. "A lot of it also comes down to just advocating for migrants of all kinds," he says. "I hope that we are coming out of this experience with a deeper sense of interconnectedness and responsibility for the larger situation."
When tensions flare: Nomads vs. locals
In some digital nomad hotspots, that interconnectedness between locals and nomads has sprung up organically.
When Olga Hannonen, a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland, studied the reaction of Gran Canaria residents to an influx of digital nomads, she found them to be overwhelmingly positive, with one calling them "the new locals." But speaking to her colleagues around the world made her realize just how rare this was.
"I got feedback from other digital nomad researchers who do research in Thailand or Bali, and they would say, wow, in Thailand or Bali they are never going to be called the locals," she says.
I visited Bali in 2010. It was already a well-developed backpacker haven back then, but today it would be unrecognizable, says Shaun Busuttil, talking to me over Zoom from a cafe in the town of Ubud. Thanks to an influx of digital nomads – drawn by the promise of a tropical paradise and an endless supply of yoga classes and smoothies – Bali has never been busier.
It's one of several locations around the world saturated by nomads as they search for community, good weather, affordable living and reliable infrastructure. "It was happening before the pandemic, but now when a lot more people are able to work remotely and are choosing to live in Lisbon or Bali or Thailand, then the scale of that makes it more of an issue," says Busuttil, who's been a digital nomad for 10 years and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Melbourne.
In Bali, he has witnessed local grocery stores transformed into cafes selling $5 lattes, entirely unaffordable to people on local salaries. These cafes serve as spaces in which labor is being carried out by both locals in the service industry and nomads on laptops – but the former are likely earning around 50 cents per hour, whereas the latter can easily be earning $50 in the same period of time. "lt's crazy and it's really uncomfortable," he says.
It's also a key difference between tourists and nomads, he says. Tourists will simply consume, but, he adds, "it's different when you're actually making money in that same space."
The influx of digital nomads into Bali has happened at a slow creep over the past 10 years, but in newer nomad hotspots, their arrival can feel abrupt and out of the blue. When Ayling moved to Mexico City in September 2020 for a relationship, the nomads were nowhere to be seen. "This place was a ghost town," he says.
But as pandemic restrictions lifted he noticed a boom in the number of Americans pouring in. The coffee shops he frequented in neighborhoods such as Roma and Condesa suddenly seemed to be full of New Yorkers setting up laptops and talking through headphones. He gets why the Mexico City residents would be annoyed. "I walk in these buildings and I'm like, 'What the fuck are you doing?'" he says. "Who goes to someone else's country and sets up an office in a public coffee shop?"
The way in which nomads occupy space that was formerly the domain of locals is a major bone of contention among host communities. Many local residents in Mexico City are deeply frustrated at the rise of Airbnb, blaming the company for an explosion in the short-term rental market that has caused housing shortages and seen landlords put rents up, displacing local communities. Lisbon, like Mexico City, has also seen protests against the presence of digital nomads. The government finally cracked down on Airbnb licensing in Portugal this year. (Airbnb did not respond to a request for comment.)
It's often recommended that nomads who want to ingratiate themselves among locals avoid Airbnb entirely, so as not to exacerbate the issues of gentrification. "If you're going into a new country where you've already done your research and you know that there is a housing problem, find alternative accommodations for your temporary housing," says Alvin Toro, a digital nomad of 13 years who was in Paris while we talked. "Don't support that kind of business."
Nomads, bromads and taking responsibility
Nomads can't be held solely responsible for the problems of gentrification – for many, gentrification pushed them to adopt the lifestyle in the first place. But a willingness to interrogate the impact their presence has on local communities and adjust accordingly can have an impact.
"I've gone through phases where I was very unaware of the impact that my lifestyle was bringing," says Toro, who is from the US. He'd started to hear of grievances among locals dissatisfied with the growing digital nomad deluge, but it took him a while to identify his own role in it. "It must have been maybe around 2015, 2016 when I started looking at myself in the mirror, and I was, like, maybe you're part of the problem."
While many digital nomads are motivated by their love of travel and want to learn about rather than disrupt local culture, there is a subset motivated solely by the opportunity to take advantage of a destination because it's cheap. "Some definitely do question their role in it and are socially aware," says Busuttil. "And then there are some that don't really care at all – they're all about what's good for them."
Many could be referred to as "bromads." A bromad can be loosely defined as a digital nomad, usually American and male, often working in crypto, with a staunchly libertarian way of thinking. They view their lifestyle as more of a right than a privilege and will make use of whatever local resources they need to maintain it, without considering their impact on the local community.
According to Bussutil, these types are less prevalent in the digital nomad scene in 2023. But there is still evidence of bromad thinking on the digital nomad subreddit, where questions about how to live more ethically and sustainably are sometimes met with hostility. Those concerned about the impact of their lifestyles are told they're "overthinking it" or "oversensitive," while on another thread someone asks if it would be a step too far to save money by nomading in Ukraine for a while.
"Some of the posts on this subreddit read like a bizarro male version of Eat Pray Love," said one commenter, chiming in on a post romanticizing the affordability of Eastern European countries.
It doesn't help when, in order to make money, digital nomads turn themselves into social media-based lifestyle gurus espousing the affordability of cities in developing countries. On TikTok, a video entitled, "What I spend in a week living and working as a digital nomad in Medellin, Colombia," came under fire from citizens of Latin American countries earlier this year. Frustrated at nomads' perceived lack of awareness that they were contributing to gentrification across Puerto Rico, Mexico and Colombia, many people stitched the video, calling the original creator a colonizer.
Around the same time the nomads descended upon Mexico City, the TikToks that Ayling made when he went out for dinner with his Mexican partner at popular local restaurants started going viral for all the wrong reasons. He was receiving a barrage of negative comments, calling him a colonizer and telling him to go home. Initially, it was a shock. For years he'd made travel videos and put them online, including for the Mexico City tourist board, but the backlash he was suddenly receiving showed something had shifted.
"It really shook my self-perception, because I've always made content on social media that I felt was pushing the narrative of being respectful and being interested in places," he says. He decided it would be for the best if he stopped making the TikToks. "I'm a resident here, but for someone else, I might be playing into their sense of identity in ways I don't fully understand," he says.
When nomads lift locals
Once known as a winter-sun destination for European retirees, Madeira is getting a new lease of life, as an influx of young digital nomads flock to the island for its temperate climate and abundant natural beauty. If there's anyone who can convince me to dabble in the digital nomad lifestyle in an ethical and responsible way, it's Luis Calado, a former remote worker and co-founder of the nonprofit Madeira Friends.
Madeira Friends started out as a bunch of nomads and locals getting together to work out after pandemic lockdowns lifted, Calado tells me from the capital Funchal over Zoom. Over time, it blossomed into a community of nomads who aim to ensure that the influx of people coming to the island are improving the lives of Madeira's permanent residents. So far this year, the organization has hosted 70 events that have attracted over 3,000 people.
When Calado and I speak in May, he's preparing for the second Madeira Friends hackathon that weekend, during which nomads are planning to tackle three problems: local bureaucracy, public safety and access to services for international visitors.
There's also a highly social aspect to Madeira Friends. Fitness provides a "universal language" for people to bond in, says Calado. Then there are weekly socials and lunches, as well as beach cleanups and free catamaran trips for local families.
"This is why we call ourselves 'givers, not takers,'" Calado says. "We want to be the project that gives meaning and gives a purpose to the movement of international people coming to Madeira."
Aware of some of the issues caused by geo-arbitrage in other popular nomad destinations, Calado is thinking long-term about the impact of nomads in Madeira and wants its reputation to be distinct from that of other hotspots. As an island with limited space and resources, he takes seriously the responsibility of attracting the right kind of digital nomads to Madeira. "We want to make sure that in a few years ... the locals feel good about it," he tells me.
While not as stark as in emerging economies, there is a gap between the average salary of locals and nomads in Madeira. The main contributing factor in this disparity is access to education and work opportunities, which nomads associated with Madeira Friends are trying to address by going into schools to teach coding skills and providing children with books.
Digital nomads are chasing a dream, but they aren't the only ones with dreams. "The locals on the ground also want to have a better quality of life," says Busuttil.
On Ayling's Substack, he has written that destinations will reap the benefits of nomadism "only if they can channel nomad immigration into something longer-lasting – namely education and job training for future-facing industries so that the next generation of locals can perhaps join nomads."
Razavi is also an advocate of governments proactively putting in place strategies and policies that will accommodate nomads into their countries. An influx of nomads should ideally be met with investment in local infrastructure that will also benefit local communities, she says, creating triple wins for all involved.
"If the government has done a good job of creating the spaces for integration, it's very much possible for nomads to be a kind of connector from the local to the global," says Razavi. "You have this effect of local people who may not have had a kind of inroad to get a global job with a global salary interacting with nomads and then sort of being exposed and connected to that world."
Where governments have been slow to react, nomads such as Calado are already stepping in to show them how it's done. They can have a profound impact through skill sharing, especially in emerging economies.
As part of her role as Founder of the Livit co-working hub in Bali, Lavinia Iosub has been working to get digital nomads out of their bubble to help train local talent with tech skills. The project came out of her frustration from seeing the disparity between the way nomads and locals were living.
"You make money in a different currency that gives you so much more purchasing power in the country you're in to enjoy your smoothie bowls in the morning, your little yoga sessions, zip around on scooters and live a fabulous tropical life," she says. She wanted to narrow that gap by expanding the job prospects of locals so that they had options beyond the service industry roles on their doorsteps.
Through Livit, she started running courses that were immediately oversubscribed, with local people in Bali keen to skill up. "It's given us an opportunity to actually really be rooted in the local culture and co-work with local people and ... provide more economic opportunity," she says.
In the past three years, Livit has trained more than 1500 people through their Remote Skills Academy and helped hire over 300 people for its startups and partner projects -- not just in Bali, but also in other areas of Indonesia. "We've seen, for example, stay-at-home mothers that went from zero income to making more money than their entire family," says Iosub.
Want to be a nomad? Read this first
Some digital nomads will eventually find themselves somewhere they want to commit long term, transforming into digital settlers or immigrants. At this point they are likely to start learning the language and engaging with the local culture by getting involved in community projects or taking classes – but these options are open to nomads too.
"Take salsa lessons," says Ayling. "Every gringo should be frickin' shaking their hips at this point if they're living in Latin America." But if digital nomads want to be the most responsible global citizens they can possibly be, they need to start with language, he adds. "Learn a language and use that language to better understand the countries and the nuances of the countries that you're visiting."
Language exchanges can be an especially good way to meet people while learning, recommends Toro. Hiking meetups, too, can guarantee you'll meet a wide mix of people beyond nomads. "I really think that we are all better off learning from each other and integrating with each other, not separating each other into buckets, which is what we seem to do," he says.
The world is big and there is absolutely no rule stating that all digital nomads must flock to the same locations, but they do have a tendency to swarm to nomad hotspots. There are good reasons why certain locations become popular – affordability, safety and good Wi-Fi are key factors – and why nomads, who live a sometimes lonely life, might seek them out. But it would help alleviate the pressure on some destinations if they spread out more.
Nomad List keeps an updated ranking of the most popular destinations among its members, which Toro uses as a guide of where not to go in order to avoid segregated bubbles of people.
"What you find is, for example, if you go to Lisbon, a lot of the businesses that the nomads support are businesses that are run by foreigners that the owners in the servers speak English," he says. Heading to more off-the-beaten-path locations can involve sacrificing some levels of convenience, but ultimately he feels it's worth it in order to be part of the solution.
Several nomads and location-independent people I spoke with also recommend moving less frequently, and sticking to a smaller area. For nomads just starting out, it's easy to imagine how tempting it might be to zigzag across the world following the sun and their own whims. But restricting their movement could allow them to practice their language skills and develop a deeper connection with a country, all while avoiding the burnout that long-term travel sometimes brings.
"Approaching travel either as a slow, deliberate learning process, or an immigration process where you really do want to join a culture and understand it and contribute to it is probably more sustainable than just this idea that you just bounce around wherever the weather's nice," says Ayling.
One question nomads can ask themselves if they want to ensure they're living ethically, says Busuttil, is whether the positives they're bringing to communities outweigh the negatives – and what kind of timeframe are they going to give themselves to see those positives blossom into long-term benefits.
Then, of course, there is the simple matter of respect. Raving about how cheap a location is can come across as rude to local people who are struggling to make ends meet. Maybe tourists are walking around with their tops off or wearing swimwear, but if the locals aren't doing it, it's more polite to follow their lead. Above all else, advises Razavi, it's important to avoid any thinking of "us and them."
She recommends "listening to and learning from other people's experiences and struggles and then really thinking about. what you might be able to do to alleviate that." People should see themselves as able to affect change, she adds. "Even if it's on a really small level, try to enrich [the lives of] the people that you're encountering."
Many of the issues surrounding digital nomadism are structural and tied to wider problems of inequality and inadequate policymaking. But it turns out from speaking to digital nomads that there is lots that they can and are doing to minimize the harm to others.
"When people ask if digital nomadism is good or bad, it's both," says Busittil. "It gives stuff and it takes stuff away, like any social phenomenon."
So if you dream of more than just labor, if you pine to make hay while the sun shines in a tropical co-working space with an iced matcha latte, know that you can do it ethically if you choose. Just follow the advice of those who are already living it, and avoid dragging those around you into your happy hour Zoom.
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