As countries ranging from Indonesia to Mexico aim to attract digital nomads, locals say 'not so fast'

Should your community welcome digital nomads – individuals who work remotely, allowing them freedom to bounce from country to country?

Our research has found that workers are eager to embrace the flexibility of not being tied to an office. And after experiencing economic losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, cities and countries are concocting ways to entice visitors.

One idea involves stretching the meaning of tourism to include remote workers.

Today, a growing number of countries offer so-called “digital nomad visas.” These visas allow longer stays for remote workers and provide clarity about allowable work activities. For example, officials in Bali, Indonesia, are looking to formalize a process for remote workers to procure visas – “the faster, the better,” as the head of the island’s tourism agency put it.

Yet pushback from locals in cities ranging from Barcelona to Mexico City has made it clear that there are costs and benefits to an influx of remote workers.

As we explain in our new book, “Digital Nomads: In Search of Freedom, Community, and Meaningful Work in the New Economy,” the trend of “work tourism” comes with a host of drawbacks.

Wearing out their welcome

For as long as there’s been tourism, locals have griped about the outsiders who come and go. These travelers are usually a welcome boost to the economy – up to a point. They can also wear out their welcome.

Perhaps the classic example is Venice, where high numbers of tourists stress the canal-filled city’s fragile infrastructure.

In the U.S., New Jersey shore residents have long used the term “shoobies” to denigrate the annual throng of short-term summer tourists. In our research on digital nomads in Bali, locals referred to digital nomads and other tourists as “bules” – a word that roughly translates as “foreigners.”

Generally the terms are used to express minor annoyance over crowds and increased traffic. But conventional tourists come and go – their stays usually range from a couple of nights to a couple of weeks. Remote workers stay anywhere from weeks to months – or longer. They spend more time using places and resources traditionally dedicated to the local residents. This raises the chances that outsiders become a grating presence.

Excessive numbers of visitors can also raise sustainability concerns, as waves of tourists tax the environment and infrastructure of many destinations. Many of Bali’s beautiful rice fields and surrounding lush forests, for example, are being converted into hotels and villas to serve tourism.

Digital nomads look to stretch their dollars

Whether they’re lazing around or plugging away on their laptops, privileged tourists ultimately change the economics and demographics of an area.

Their buying power increases costs and displaces residents, while traditional businesses make way for ones that cater to their tastes. Where once there was a neighborhood food stand, now there’s an upscale cafe.

This dynamic is only exacerbated by long-term tourists. Services like VRBO and Airbnb make it easy for digital nomads to rent apartments for weeks or months at a time, and people around the world are increasingly alarmed at how quickly such rentals can change the affordability and character of a place.

Living a vacation lifestyle on a long-term basis implies a need to choose lower-cost destinations. This means that remote workers may particularly contribute to gentrification as they seek out places where their dollars go furthest.

In Mexico City, residents fear displacement by remote workers able to pay higher rents. In response to calls to choose Mexico City as a remote working destination, one local succinctly expressed opposition: “Please don’t.”

And in New Orleans, almost half of all properties in the historic Tremé district – one of the oldest Black neighborhoods in the U.S. – have been converted to short-term rentals, displacing longtime residents.