Travel and immigration ground to a halt in 2020, as countries tried to curb the COVID-19 pandemic with strict restrictions on mobility. From mid-March of 2020 and late February this year, more than 100,000 restrictions on movement were issued worldwide. Global tourism hit a historic low in 2020, with a billion fewer international arrivals than in 2019. The global travel and tourism sector lost nearly $4.5 trillion.
Digital nomad visas allow holders to live in a country while working a job based abroad. Most countries require applicants to meet a certain monthly income threshold, to have proof of health insurance, and to test negative for COVID-19. The requirements are otherwise sparse, and most of the programs let visa holders remain in the country for up to a year.
In places that haven't enacted digital nomad visa programs, workers are limited to tourist visas that prevent stays longer than a few months. Living somewhere long-term while maintaining employment abroad often requires company sponsorship and complicated bureaucratic processing.
While several preexisting visa programs are devoted to self-employed people and those who can live off passive income, digital nomad visas apply to a much broader population. Somewhat paradoxically, most of them were launched during the pandemic, even as governments were imposing the harshest restrictions on international movement in recent history. Even under these conditions, many officials realize that foreign visitors are good for economic recovery.
Estonia began developing its digital nomad visa program in 2018, and it started taking applications last August. Around 20 other countries and territories have rolled out similar schemes. Thailand and Indonesia, already top destinations for off-the-books digital nomads, are in a slow race to become the first Asian country to roll out a program for remote workers.
The demand is clearly there. When Barbados launched its year-long "Welcome Stamp" visa last June, it received more than 1,000 applications in its first week. Georgia received 2,000 applications to its year-long remote work program from August to January.
Croatia adopted its digital nomad program thanks to the Dutch entrepreneur Jan de Jong, who pitched the idea to Prime Minister Andrej Plenković in an open letter on LinkedIn. De Jong, who has lived in Croatia for over a decade, was invited to meet with Plenković and the Ministry of the Interior shortly after posting his appeal.
De Jong tells Reason that politicians "right away showed full understanding of how big of an opportunity this was for Croatia." He built much of his case around the wealth digital nomads bring to a country: "The average monthly salary in Croatia is EUR 905. So, basically, every digital nomad that comes to Croatia is considered to be a high-spending temporary citizen of Croatia." With those people comes "a nice influx of new revenues."
Welcome as that revenue is, de Jong thinks it may be "even more important" that "digital nomads will be bringing their experience and mindset with them." Over the past 10 to 15 years, half a million young people have left the country. "By welcoming digital nomads," de Jong says, "we wish to reverse the brain-drain." In that way, digital nomad visas can offer both short-term relief for pandemic-era strain and long-term benefits for countries struggling to attract talent.
The digital nomad visa market is sufficiently saturated that countries are advertising unique benefits to attract workers interested in relocating. The Croatian visa program has a lower income threshold than Barbados and Estonia, gives digital nomads the opportunity to buy private health insurance, and does not collect income tax during the 12-month visa period. Barbados, Cape Verde, and Georgia also exempt digital nomads from income taxation. Dominica offers duty-free goods and discounts from service providers. Dubai provides the COVID-19 vaccine to visa holders free of charge.
With many restrictions on global movement still in place, travelers may not be as interested as usual in shorter trips. But longer-term nomadism, de Jong predicts, will "recover faster and sooner."
Border reopening goalposts have been pushed back again and again, and it's easy to fear that these restrictions on movement will outlast the pandemic. But the growing popularity of digital nomad visas bodes well for the long-term health of international mobility. Travelers bring talent and resources with them, and officials adopting this idea understand the goodness of that.