Since the turn of the century, individuals have increasingly turned to the gig economy for opportunity. With the freedoms provided by the Internet and communication technologies, the number of freelancers grew substantially. Businesses likewise appreciated the advantages of the gig economy and the ability to outsource services that would otherwise be in-house. In most instances, this was a win-win. An in the process, society began to make a shift toward a more mobile and flexible work environment.
Today, another major shift has occurred in workspace environments thanks to COVID. Millions are now working remotely at home, and most expect this trend to continue even after a coronavirus vaccine. But this trend also has the potential to fuel an even larger movement related to work travel experiences. The number of digital nomads, remote workers who travel from place to place, is expected to boom once travel resumes. And if this occurs, the impact will be felt well beyond the workplace.
“Changes in consumer behavior — social distancing leading to reduced travel and increased remote work, for example — create opportunities for new offerings and to establish new habits. Now is a great time for experimentation…” – Robbie Kellman Baxter, Consultant at Peninsula Strategies and Author of “The Membership Economy”
The History of Digital Nomads
The term “digital nomads” was popularized in 1997 when a book by the same name was released. Since that time, the number of individuals seeking work travel experiences have grown significantly. In 2019, nearly 8 million Americans considered themselves digital nomads. Since their place of work was flexible, they chose to make choices based on locale and lifestyle. They might spend a few months in a country or even a year, depending on their preferences. As long as the Internet connection was good, all was fine.
The largest challenge many digital nomads faced at that time involved immigration restrictions. For most countries, tourists are only allowed to stay in a foreign country from 3 to 6 months a year. Anything longer requires immigration application. Some desiring work travel experiences would work around these rules by keeping their stays shorter. Others would hope the host country wouldn’t enforce the rules. But in any regard, these were not enough of a barrier to halt the trend. However, the pandemic was another story.
“I can’t buy a ticket now for February because I don’t know how things will even turn out in December. It’s day to day, week to week to see what will be the next step.” – Vanessa Perez, a freelance marketing consultant from Montreal
The Good and Bad Impact of COVID
For those enjoying foreign work travel experience previously, the pandemic certainly threw a wrench in their plans. Notably, the travel and tourism sector has been one of the hardest hit areas this past year. For digital nomads, this meant having to deal with travel restrictions, cancellations, and of course, quarantines. Some chose to roam locally around their own country or locate to the few countries that still welcome foreigners. Others are simply saving their money for better times when their travel options increase.
From a different perspective, the pandemic has made millions more realize the potential that work travel experiences offer. Being forced to work from home, many people appreciate now how easy it is to work from anywhere. This has prompted some to relocate away from crowded metropolitan areas to suburban or rural areas. Others are beginning to explore the lifestyle of digital nomads to see if this might work for them. An increasing number of people are now considering this type of lifestyle, especially Millennials who already embrace experience over materialism.
“When you can work from home, you can really work from anywhere. We saw that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the Netflix of the hotel industry and provide unlimited nights at a fixed price.” – Lennert de Jong, Chief Commercial Officer, citizenM, a Dutch luxury hotel chain
Accommodating Digital Nomads
Recent reports predict that the emergence of trends that embrace work travel experiences will dramatically change the travel industry by 2025. In fact, it already is. Several countries are adopting new immigration visas for digital nomads that allow them to stay for up to a year abroad. Dubai, Barbados, Croatia, and Greece are just a few that have already made such changes. The incentive for these countries is to attract long-term visitors who will contribute to their local economy without displacing jobs. And many are offering tax breaks or other incentives to entice these individuals.
Other major developments are also in the works to accommodate work travel experiences. In addition to extended stays at Airbnb, digital nomads will now have additional options. Numerous high-end hotels are moving toward a subscription-based model that offer multi-location stays for one price. These include hotel chains like Zoku and citizenM, which are moving to this strategy. By providing housing-as-a-service (HaaS), these travel sector corporations can tap into a new emerging market. Many experts see this as one of the new norms that develop within the next decade in a post-pandemic era.
A New Global Subculture
In light of the pandemic and more people working from home, the number of digital nomads is expected to grow. Some suggest as many as 1 billion may be taking advantage of work travel experiences on a regular basis abroad. This will naturally disrupt the existing travel and tourism infrastructure at many levels. And this provides great opportunities for many businesses to capitalize on change. While a digital nomad lifestyle is expensive and not for all, its freedoms and experiences will be attractive to many. Now that millions have been awakened to the concept, it’s clear this is one trend that’s certain to continue.
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