How ‘digital nomad’ visas can boost local economies

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More and more companies are offering their employees the option to “work from anywhere,” whether that be in their home office, in another state, or even halfway around the world. A growing group of remote professionals are pushing the “anywhere” in working from anywhere to new horizons. These “digital nomads” are leveraging their remote jobs to allow them to live in tourist hotspots or tropical destinations for months at a time. Others engage in “work-cations” of several months, combining periods of work and tourism. During the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries – especially those with major tourism sectors suffering from global travel cuts – have started offering specific visas to these digital nomads. It’s abundantly clear that digital nomads, and remote workers in general, can be a boon to any economy – spending money, facilitating collaboration and driving innovation – a win-win for digital nomads and the economies where they choose to live and work.

Work from anywhere, where workers enjoy the flexibility to live in the geography of their choice, is here to stay, and countries around the world are in a race to attract the growing class of known international remote workers. under the name of “digital nomads”. Portugal, for example, now offers a two-year renewable residence visa for workers who can prove they have remote work for the duration of their stay. Other countries that offer some form of digital nomad visas include Australia, Czech Republic, United Arab Emirates, Estonia, Germany, Thailand, Indonesia, Italy, Spain and Brazil, among others. (See table below for details). These visas generally require proof of income and remote employment, travel insurance, and intention to leave. In summary, digital nomads are investing their time and money in the local economy, not taking local jobs, and building bridges with local knowledge workers – a win-win for remote workers and local communities.

More and more companies are offering their employees the option to “work from anywhere,” whether that be in their home office, in another state, or even halfway around the world. Some companies, like Zapier, GitLab, and Doist, have adopted an all-remote model, doing away with desktops entirely. Others, like Twitter and Shopify, keep their physical offices but use a “remote-first” mindset. Still others are exploring hybrid remote models, whether that means allowing certain roles to work remotely or (as Google announced in 2021) allowing annual shifts to work from anywhere.

A growing group of remote professionals are pushing the “anywhere” in working from anywhere to new horizons. These “digital nomads” are leveraging their remote jobs to allow them to live in tourist hotspots or tropical destinations for months at a time. Others engage in “work-cations” of several months, combining periods of work and tourism.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries – especially those with major tourism sectors suffering from global travel cuts – have started offering specific visas to these digital nomads. Digital nomads can now choose from a range of tropical destinations (Costa Rica, Mexico, Ecuador), island getaways (Saint Lucia, Barbados, Seychelles) and winter escapes (Estonia, Iceland, Norway). Other countries have expanded their existing short-term work visas to accommodate people working remotely, including several members of the European Union and many countries in Southeast Asia. Visa programs typically cost around $1,000 and exempt visa holders from local income tax for their stay of six months to two years. They also have income and employment requirements, ensuring that these visa holders can support themselves without taking local jobs.

Digital nomad visas have many benefits for countries and local communities. First, these visas act as a temporary solution to immigration policy issues and visa delays around the world. Many knowledge workers are currently unable to work around the world, especially in countries like the United States, due to immigration policy gridlock or protracted visa processing backlogs. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, knowledge workers faced long wait times for visas, rising refusal rates and great uncertainty. The pandemic has compounded these issues, adding travel restrictions from Covid-19 hotspots, overseas embassy closures and even longer processing times for all types of visas to the list of challenges. A digital nomad visa provides short-term access to countries around the world and typically lasts six to 12 months for remote workers. The geographic mobility of digital nomads could boost business travel in the short to medium term, giving the airline industry a much-needed demand boost.

Secondly and most importantly, digital nomads could act as catalysts for knowledge and resource flows between regions, to the benefit of themselves, their organizations and their host countries. My long-standing research on geographic mobility and innovation has shown that short-term travel and even short periods of colocation with geographically distant colleagues can help workers access information and resources that can help develop new ideas and new projects, which benefits both the mobile worker and their organizations. My research with former doctoral student Do Yoon Kim has also shown that skilled migrants bring to their host communities unique knowledge from the cultural context of their country of origin. In addition, local inventors engage in “knowledge recombination” by combining their existing knowledge with knowledge transferred by migrants. In subsequent research with Dany Bahar and Hillel Rapoport, we showed that migrant inventors not only “import” knowledge from their country of origin, resulting in more patents; migrant inventors in fact increase patent in the same technologies that their home country specializes in. As a result, a country is likely to have migrants as inventors of the very first volume of patents in a new technology.

Finally, digital nomads could play a key role in promoting entrepreneurship and creating technology clusters around the world. Foreign entrepreneurs who come together in a shared space for even a few months can spur new connections and new ventures, as I have seen in my work with Start-Up Chile, an incubator program sponsored by the government that has invited more than 280 start-ups to spend time in Chile since its creation in 2012.

In summary, it’s clear that digital nomads, and remote workers in general, can be a boon to any economy, spending money, facilitating collaboration, and driving innovation. However, the United States has not announced a digital nomad program. Countries around the world are competing for remote talent. It is time for the United States to come on board – or risk being left behind.

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