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Does the pandemic mean the end for digital nomads?

Experts weigh in about what COVID-19 might mean long-term for remote workers who love to travel.

Does the pandemic mean the end for digital nomads?
[Source photo: coscaron/iStock]

Living as an expat isn’t a new concept. But over the past five years, the trend has grown exponentially, thanks in part to the growing ease of remote work. Data from 2018 by MBO Partners State of Independence Research Brief found that 4.8 million Americans described themselves as digital nomads, and an additional 17 million hoped to one day have this lifestyle.

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I understand the allure, particularly since I bought into the hype myself.

In March, as the world began the pandemic shutdown, I was furiously messaging friends on WhatsApp. Though most of us are now living in the United States, my digital nomad buddies and I haven’t made the switch to iMessage, perhaps, because we don’t want to fully lace up our traveling shoes.

While no one is a jet-setter these days, from August 2017 until November 2018, I moved my way through six continents, around 25 countries and dozens of cities, while building, maintaining, and growing my freelance business. Last year, I still left the country every two or so months, and I would have done the same this year if COVID-19 didn’t ground, well, mostly everyone.

Watching borders shut down and hearing about pals struggling to return from whatever corner of the world they were located was unfathomable. Logically, it made sense to stop the spread of this deadly virus. But as a wanderluster, it made me sad for the future of the digital nomadic community I had joined and love dearly.

With so much unknown about traveling in the future, I’ve often wondered how digital nomads will restart their trekking. When will they feel safe enough to move from one nation to another? Will coworking spaces be able to survive? Will companies who assist digital nomads bounce back from this unpredictable period of time?

Remote Year, for example, laid off more than 50% of its staff, closed down operations with little notice to hundreds of participants dotted across the globe, and is now trying to find ways to engage stateside via ‘Remote Villages’ in New Orleans, Louisiana or Greenville, South Carolina. As an alum of the program, I read about their updates, and cross my fingers for their recovery.

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While I miss traveling like everyone else, I never planned to return to my country-hopping habit. However, many are eager to pack very little and travel very wide. Of the past, present, and future travelers I spoke to, nearly all of them agreed: The digital nomad isn’t ‘dead’—and it could even become a bigger movement over the next decade. In the interim, though, there may be a pause and restructuring to navigate. In the meantime, we may see a few trends:

Access to healthcare will become a priority

As an IT professional for three decades, Cynthia Fortlage was used to working remotely but never considered it a way of life until 2020 rolled around when she joined Remote Year. She deemed it her ‘year of travel’ and landed in Medellin, Colombia, in March. Two weeks later, everything changed, and she was given a choice to head back to her home country of Canada or stay in Colombia. She did the latter and considers herself a current digital nomad. Because Colombia closed its airways, she’s stayed put for six months but intends to fly to London, England in September.

Looking ahead, she predicts health and safety will become a bigger concern for digital nomads than ever been before. Though many purchase traveler’s insurance or international coverage before they leave their home country (partly because it’s far less expensive than buying domestic coverage in individual nations, like America), there wasn’t a global threat to be mindful of. Now, as wanderlusters move from one spot to another, they will need to research the current case numbers, the closest hospitals, what’s covered in their plans, and the local mandates. It definitely won’t look as rosy as it did pre-pandemic, but for those who are willing to take the risk, it will still possible to move around for many.

Flying will be harder—and more expensive

Part of the appeal of being a digital nomad is saving money. In fact, for many, this lifestyle is a way to stow away a lot of cash, assuming you have the right job. In the United States, if you’re out of the country 330 of 365 days, you qualify for the “Foreign Income Exclusion” tax. Basically, this means you are not taxed on your first $100K since you haven’t been in the country to reap any of the benefits. After $100K, your tax bracket is based on how much additional you make, and you’re only responsible for federal taxes.

Another factor is the cost of living adjustment: it’s obviously much cheaper to rent an apartment in say, Lima, Peru than in New York City. And if you stay within continents, book ahead, or rack up points, flights typically aren’t too costly, either. Or, at least, they didn’t use to be.

As airlines struggle to remain afloat, the cost of flying has increased, while schedules have decreased. Though there isn’t any current information available on the anticipated long-term impact on the aviation industry, it’s safe to predict it won’t bounce back overnight—or within a few months. The same is true for the cities that used to be flooded with foreigners and remote workers. Fortlage predicts this will impact the types of destinations nomads choose as their temporary home bases.

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“It means that economies that were largely tourist-based will suffer greatly and concern for socio-economic conditions in those locations must be top of mind for nomads. I always said social unrest will be a key reason to leave a city,” she adds.

Already-slow travel will become even slower

Trish Kennelly quit her consulting job in 2015, sold almost everything she owned, and moved to Europe to become one of the first employees of Remote Year. Five years later, she managed a remote team of 40+ global employees, visited 60 countries, and changed jobs twice. When the pandemic was brewing in Europe earlier this year, she was in London, setting up for a two-week accelerator program with hundreds of international guests. When that was canceled in the final hour, Kennelly and her partner decided to rent a house in the countryside of Portugal to wait it out. Now, they’re in Sao Miguel, the main island of the Azores.

“I consider my lifestyle to be one that is not defined by a location,” says Kennelly. “I consider ‘home’ to be wherever I am at any given moment. None of that has changed with the pandemic, although my travel and travel style has adjusted a bit.”

The most significant change she’s experienced is what she predicts for the near future: slow traveling. Rather than jumping on a flight for a quick trip to another city, town, country, or continent, she’s stayed put for five months and only taken one flight—far below her typical average. Though everyone is different, most nomads live up to their name, moving frequently, and often on a whim. During my 15-month journey, I took 69 flights, slept in 115 beds (yes, I counted).

Now though, the idea of moving so casually feels dangerous and scary. “I don’t intend to travel long distances until it is fully safe and responsible again, and it’s impossible to say when that will be,” says Kennelly. Over the next two years, she plans to maintain a slower pace with fewer flights and less movement, but still, be location-independent.

Certain regions may be safer to travel in than others

Aliénor Salmon left her job at the United Nations in August 2016 to learn how to dance through Latin America as a total beginner. The decision was an easy one when she realized a lot of the work she did—research, writing, editing, and communications—could be done online. She started with small freelancing gigs to keep her going during her career break and then created a lifestyle around her passions. Over the past four years, she’s worked on various projects, and she’s growing to the point of opening her own agency.

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Up until COVID-19 began, she had created a home base in Mexico City for nine months, while frequently traveling to nearby countries. While difficult to return home, she did move back to the United Kingdom in March, after the embassy encouraged her to do so. She’s now traveling again by road tripping, but only through her current continent. “In Europe, countries are taking serious measures to enable people to travel safely. COVID measures are highlighted on websites such as Airbnb and Booking.com,” she continued. “The pandemic made it clear that it was important for me to have a base, and that living out of a suitcase full-time was no longer sustainable. My current road trip in Europe is a scouting trip to choose a potential ‘home.'”

Remote work has created an awakening for companies

Sahin Boydas, the founder and CEO of RemoteTeam.com, believes that one day the digital nomad lifestyle will be more popular than ever. Because the pandemic has given companies a glimpse into how effective and productive employees can be when they aren’t tied to a desk, many are changing the way they think about having a headquarters at all.

“The remote work revolution sparked by the pandemic served as an experiment for many companies—and a lot of them aren’t going back to the office,” he says. He predicts exponential growth, thanks to technology firms who are racing to solve poor internet connectivity issues, improvements to digital security while working remotely, and collaboration tools.

While it may feel counterintuitive, Boydas says the pandemic has done more than force everyone to figure out remote work; it’s also provided a much-needed mental shift. Before, many people would fear losing their job if they asked to travel and log in from another time zone. Or, they couldn’t wrap their heads around the concept of building an income or continuing the career path in a non-traditional way. Now, with experience under their belts, that anxiety has been lifted. Along with it, many may feel a growing desire to get out of the house, their city, their state, and their country. After all, why download a Zoom background of Bali when you can just live there for a few months?

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