The collapse of the global tourism industry in 2020 is happening at the same time as a dramatic shift in our working habits. No one is quite sure what the future of the tourism industry will look like, but it is generally agreed that there will be widespread changes. Some suspect that “digital nomads” could be part of the solution to rebuild island economies.
Off the north-western coast of Ireland sits the island of Arranmore. Home to about 500 people, the island has experienced significant depopulation stemming from the fact that its farming and fishing sectors have not been able to compete with lucrative jobs offered in urban areas. In order to stop the exodus of people and attract new residents, islanders decided to create a hub for digital nomads with some of the country’s fastest internet speeds.
Now that work from home is the new normal, a whole new group of travellers have the option to visit Arranmore and stay for weeks or months, while still keeping up with their day job. Some might even choose to stay permanently.
Digital nomads are independent workers who subscribe to a location-independent work lifestyle with the aid of technology. The digital nomad culture has been on the rise as a result of better communications technologies that allow people to work from anywhere with a reliable internet connection. While remote work was steadily becoming more popular before COVID-19, it is now mainstream and many companies have announced that they will let staff continue with remote working even when it’s safe to return to the offices. Many employees love the flexibility and companies save on operating costs.
This trend is going to continue even after the pandemic, and with more people becoming free to choose where they want to work from, the number of digital nomads is only going to grow.
One research paper in 2018 found that there were already 4.8 million American workers self-describing as “digital nomads” and some 17 million independent workers had these aspirations. The founder of Nomad List predicts that by 2035, there will be a billion location-independent workers around the world. Longer stay visitors could be the key for islands needing to rebuild their economies but worried about the COVID-19 risk posed by a high turnover of visitors. These longer-stay visitors may also be more likely to choose smaller guesthouses or self-catering rentals over big resorts, meaning more money would be retained in the local community.
In order to achieve these, islands need deliberate policies to position themselves as digital nomad hubs. The lifestyle and natural beauty of many islands make them ideal places for digital nomads. But steps will be needed to invest in infrastructure, including high-speed internet and co-working spaces. These facilities would help attract digital nomads, who can then be leveraged to share expertise with island businesses and possibly hire local staff. Hotspots such as Bali in Indonesia and Medellín in Colombia have become favourite working destinations for many remote workers for their low cost of living, access to nature, high-quality internet infrastructure, and varied options for co-working spaces.
As a digital nomad myself, I benefitted from location-independent living while building Island Innovation. With our decentralized team spread over 8 countries we have been able to be resilient to keep operating during lockdown as we were already used to working as a remote team. I firmly believe that human’s relationships with place and work are changing rapidly which will bring opportunities and challenges for islands to redefine their economies and unleash their potential.