Digital Nomads are Ruining all the Good Places
Reports on the destruction of Mexico City, Lisbon and Bali
Over the summer I started noticing a growing chorus of news stories reporting on the invasion of foreign remote workers happening in Mexico City and other places like Lisbon and Bali.
Digital nomads are causing gentrification, rising rents, “touristification” and forced displacement:
In leafy, walkable quarters such as Roma, Condesa, Centro and Juarez, rents are soaring as Americans and other foreigners snap up houses and landlords trade long-term renters for travelers willing to pay more on Airbnb. Taquerias, corner stores and fondas — small, family-run lunch spots — are being replaced by Pilates studios, co-working spaces and sleek cafes advertising oat-milk lattes and avocado toast.
And English — well, it’s everywhere: ringing out at supermarkets, natural wine bars and fitness classes in the park.
At Lardo, a Mediterranean restaurant where, on any given night, three-quarters of the tables are filled with foreigners, a Mexican man in a well-cut suit recently took a seat at the bar, gazed at the English-language menu before him and sighed as he handed it back: “A menu in Spanish, please.”
Some chilangos, as locals are known, are fed up.
Recently, expletive-laced posters appeared around town.
“New to the city? Working remotely?” they read in English. “You’re a f—ing plague and the locals f—ing hate you. Leave.”
Ouch. Nobody wants to be part of a f—ing plague, but there have been dozens of similar articles this year, like Digital Nomads: See Why Mexicans Are Fed Up With Them, Welcome to Portugal, the new expat haven. Californians, please go home, Remote Work Is Causing Gentrification In The Global South, and this gem: Digital Nomads: 'Workcation' or Colonization?
The influx of these travelers, who demand restaurants, offices, and shops that they feel comfortable with (i.e., that are westernized), has created a wave of transnational gentrification. Under this model, local populations are exploited for their labor while their communities are destroyed. For example, in Canggu, a surfing hub in Bali, rice fields are now being replaced with cheap bars, hotels, and nightclubs to attract more foreigners.
These patterns of exploitation aren’t new—they’re reminiscent of how western countries have used the concepts of white supremacy and western modernity to “industrialize” and colonize non–western nations.
Not only do digital nomads gentrify and perpetuate myths of western supremacy, but they also encourage others to do the same—treating the Global South as an escape from the daily grind. In an infamous Twitter thread, a user moved to Bali to “elevate” her lifestyle, calling it a “perfect medicine” and telling others on Twitter to also move to get away from American work culture.
I started writing about digital nomads and location independent people back in 2009 (thanks Wayback Machine). The concept of digital nomadism (nomading?) isn’t new. What is different today is simply the sheer number of people who have the ability to work remotely, and the amount of resources and information available to nomads. Sites like Nomad List connect current and potential nomads with information about the best places to
live and work geo-arbitrage around the world, considering dozens of factors including weather, cost, internet quality/speed, safety, walkability, friendliness and more.
In the US alone there are now estimated to be 55 million workers who can work remotely on a full-time basis. When I started writing about digital nomads in 2009, it’s impossible to say how many people worked remotely, but anecdotally it seemed like there were only thousands of us at the time.
Way back then, if you wanted to work remotely, you pretty much had to build your own business. Nowadays almost anyone can do it. “Kids these days have it sooo easy! Back in my day you had to invent your own remote work to become a digital nomad. Now you can work for any old insurance company or software business.”
Imagine if 55 million Americans and tens of millions of people from other wealthy countries all started working remotely from poorer countries around the globe. You could see how local economies could be upended, and local cultures could be destroyed.
But are all those remote workers actually working in other countries?
I’ve been in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico for the past month. After being named the world’s #1 tourist destination and after being featured on Netflix series like Somebody Feed Phil and Street Food Latin America, Oaxaca is a hot destination. Every day at cafes and bars I hear dozens of languages, and we’ve met people from all over the world, including many Americans, but also plenty of French, New Zealanders, Australians, Germans, Swiss and British people, plus countless Colombians, Argentines and people from Central America. The biggest group here, by far, are Mexican tourists from other cities and states throughout the country.
Out of all the people we’ve met, how many have been digital nomads? Three. One American, one Costa Rican, and one Mexican. Three people out of the dozens and dozens of people we’ve talked to have been digital nomads. The rest have all been your garden variety tourists here for 3-7 days on average.
I’m not saying this represents the experience in Mexico City or Bali or Lisbon, but I was certainly expecting to meet many more remote workers here given the number of press articles about the global destruction they’re causing.
I was also somewhat bracing for anti-American or anti-foreigner sentiment given what I had read, but we’ve experienced nothing out of the ordinary (aside from the worst Airbnb stay of my life). The vast majority of locals have been just as warm and friendly as we’ve become accustomed to over the past 14 years in Mexico.
I’ll be in Mexico City next month. If the digital nomad situation there is different, I’ll keep you updated.
It’s almost as if the media sensationalized a story about digital nomads ruining entire economies, based on a couple of angry tweets and anecdotes about a torta shop was evicted after 54 years in business to make room for expensive apartments.
Before blaming digital nomads for gentrification, I’d consider generic tourism and globalization first. Mexico receives nearly 45 million tourists annually, accounting for $25 billion in revenue. It’s the 7th most tourist-visited country in the world. Most of these tourists come from wealthy countries like the US, Canada and Europe, who don’t blink at spending more on a few nights in an Airbnb than most local residents earn in a month.
Meanwhile, countries are tripping over themselves to create new digital nomad visas that allow for remote work, like Portugal.
Despite the pandemic’s dent on tourism, it set off widespread remote work, which Portugal now appears to be trying to take advantage of. In July, when the country was considering such a policy, Portugal’s deputy minister for parliamentary affairs, Ana Catarina Mendes, said: “Portugal is a country of immigration that needs immigrants, that needs and benefits from the contribution of immigrants to its demographics, to its economy, to its culture.”
The digital-nomad visa and residence permit will be available for people employed outside of Portugal who are able to provide a contract of employment, tax residency documents and proof of an average monthly income over the past three months equivalent to at least four times the minimum wage in Portugal, or roughly $2,730.
An average citizen’s neocolonialism is an enterprising bureaucrat’s economic hail Mary, I guess. Countries are expecting massive benefits from these schemes to attract remote workers:
With the hits to tourism suffered over the last three years, governments are looking for ways to prop up the economy with high-spending travelers and create jobs. Indonesia’s tourism minister said that the five-year visa will help create over 1 million jobs, while in Thailand, the government hopes the LTR visa can bring in 1 million wealthy and talented foreign workers in the next five years. The Thai government also estimates that the new LTR scheme will bring in around US$25 billion over the next decade.
Some are skeptical that digital nomad visas will live up to the government hype, especially given the requirements:
…they [countries creating digital nomad visas] also have wildly unrealistic projections about how many people a) meet these criteria, b) are willing to jump through the bureaucratic hoops, and c) want to tie themselves down, legally and financially, for an entire year or more.
Croatia expected thousands of applicants for its DN residency permit with a monthly income requirement of $2300 (pretty middle-of-the-pack as far as these things go). In nearly two years, they've had about 1100 applications and granted 581. Roughly half of those were people fleeing Russia and Ukraine. US citizens account for just over 100, and just a handful each from other countries.
Then there’s the whole reality of how difficult it can be to work from a remote country. Time zones and internet disruptions alone can wreak havoc on your productivity, let alone noise, air pollution and non-potable water. The dream of digital nomading is often presented as dreamy days full of work/life balance and heavenly instagram photos by the beach, but the reality is often much more frustrating. The number of people who can make it work is a small fraction of the number of people who have been given the freedom to work remotely.
Meanwhile, those who were quiet quitting are now being quietly fired as we get closer to a global recession:
Quiet firing subtly freezes out an employee by either avoiding one-on-one conversations, refusing to provide feedback, neglecting to share critical information needed to do a job, passing them over for a promotion or subjecting them to stingy raises — or no raise at all — while co-workers are awarded more.
Managers and companies who need to find some people to quietly fire during the recession will have plenty to choose from, according to a new Gallup poll. “Just 32% of full- and part-time employees working for organizations are now engaged, while 17% are actively disengaged.”
Whether it’s active disengagement, overemployment or secret digital nomading, if you have trouble getting the most from some of your employees or service providers, at least you have some potential reasons to consider.
Thanks for reading,
I am a digital nomad in Puerto Rico. I have heard some comments hurled in my direction about the "plague" of digital workers, etc. It is odd. Puerto Ricans ARE American. True, Puerto Rico still views itself as a Spanish Colony. But, it is not. Puerto Ricans have American passports. One can travel to and from the island to the United States as easily as one can fly from Portland, Oregon to Disneyland. Puerto Ricans receive Social Security Retirement Income, Medicare, and Medicaid, etc. When a hurricane hits, the Governor of Puerto Rico uses the English word "FEMA" perfectly.
To lure "Main Landers" here, PR has passed tax incentives. As a result, 15,000 have moved here from the States, generating 23,000 jobs for Puerto Ricans. That is one thing I say to lighten the mood when the origins of my birth come up. If that does not instill more respect into the conversation, I point out the obvious. Puerto Ricans are descended chiefly (about 80%) from horribly aggressive people who sailed here from Spain. These conquerors then began to kill, loot, and colonize their way across the world. So, really, complaining about digital workers and the way they impact rent prices is silly. No one belongs anywhere really. We are all here temporarily. Like fleas arguing over who owns the dog.
I have lived in and around Barcelona for nearly 30 years so I've seen it first-hand. The biggest problem for the local population is always going to be access to affordable housing as city residents are displaced by remote workers with higher incomes with the effect now radiating outwards to surrounding towns. The effect on local commerce is notable (if you've ever had a stroll through the Gothic Quarter there - not much that you'd actually want to or could afford to use if you lived there). But as you say, the problem is wider than the digital nomad, starting with mass tourism, AirBnB as an income, foreign real estate investment etc. It's going to come down to governments at different levels to regulate it if the pressure and desire is there.