What’s behind the digital nomad dream?
by Jane Harkness
Whether it’s an Instagram photo of a blogger balancing her laptop in a hammock or an entrepreneur with a poolside seat at a co-working space and a cocktail in hand, the idea of ditching the 9 to 5 to become a digital nomad has been heavily marketed as the ticket to adventure. The term digital nomad can refer to anyone who pursues location independent work and earns money while traveling, allowing them to move around the world as they wish. For digital nomads, the line between work and leisure is often blurred, and instead of carving out a few weeks a year to explore while leaving their jobs behind, they pack up their lives and work remotely from anywhere with a strong WiFi connection.
The most recent data shows that an increasing number of people are working remotely today, and about 4.8 million Americans describe themselves as digital nomads. However, 17 million say that they aspire to become nomadic within the next few years. While only a fraction of these people will likely make that aspiration their reality, it’s safe to say that the number of digital nomads will probably continue to increase. The advent of affordable travel has opened up the world, and the doors aren’t closing any time soon.
With average wages for workers stagnating or even falling in many wealthy nations, combined with the rising cost of living, it’s easy to see the appeal of becoming a digital nomad. Scrape by in a North American city, put half your paycheck towards rent, spend two hours total commuting each day, and hope to save enough money to take a vacation or two—or, bounce from one modern, beachside Airbnb to another for half the price, set your own hours, commute ten minutes down the road to a cafe, and spend your days off exploring new places or floating in a flower bath at a Balinese spa. If you have the opportunity, the choice seems simple.
Of course, many remote workers will be the first to admit that the idealistic image of this lifestyle promoted by influencers is not always true to life, but there’s no doubt that the freedom it allows on a relatively low budget is often preferable to the typical daily grind. “I’m so grateful for the freedom location independent work has created for my family, and I sincerely desire that same freedom for every other family,” says Jenn Sutherland-Miller, a long-term digital nomad and storyteller who works as a writer, editor, and marketer. Sutherland-Miller spent years traveling the world with her husband and four children while working remotely, and although they now have a home base in Ontario, they still make it a point to travel for work and pleasure when possible.
But has this trend also been a net positive for the regions these travellers gravitate towards? It’s worth noting that remote workers still make up a minority of travelers, so in many cities, their presence hasn’t had any discernible effects. “I’m usually the only digital nomad wherever I go. I only know other digital nomads exist because they join Facebook groups,” says Ilana Strauss, a writer and photographer who has spent the past year working around the United States and Colombia. However, certain destinations have become extremely popular amongst the nomadic crowd, and as a result, their impact is more visible.
Cities in Southeast Asia where remote workers can enjoy a high quality of life on a lower income are particularly popular choices. Ubud, Indonesia; Siem Reap, Cambodia; and Chiang Mai, Thailand have all become known as “hotspots” for remote workers, and as locals work to accommodate this transient group, the changes are becoming apparent.
“While that can be a very comfortable thing for those of us moving between communities every few months, there is a price for the local culture,” explained Sutherland-Miller. “The focus is turning towards a service industry for these digital nomad folks and the ‘culture’ is starting to revolve around extracting the influx of money in creative ways instead of integrating new folks into the existing cultural fabric.” In cities across Southeast Asia, there are a growing number of Western-style yoga studios and wellness centers, Instagrammable coffee shops, beach clubs, luxury spas, and boutiques. While many people will opt to stay in small guest houses or villas owned by locals, more Airbnbs and hotels are also popping up. It’s not just remote workers driving these changes, but the influx of temporary residents has certainly contributed to some of these developments.
“Returning to Thailand again after several years, I could see the changes in Chiang Mai specifically. The area, popular among digital nomads, has now become much more expensive in terms of renting an apartment or eating out. Many more cafes and co-working spaces have cropped up,” said Lena Papadopoulos, an intercultural educator and consultant who left the US to travel and work remotely in 2017.
Chiang Mai in particular is often at the center of these conversations. Located in a mountainous region in Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai isn’t the tropical Thai paradise you might see on a travel brochure, but over the past few years, it’s become something of a mecca for the remote work crowd. It may not be as populous and touristy as Bangkok, but it’s more laid back and affordable than Thailand’s capital city, which is partially why Chiang Mai consistently ranks as one of the best cities in the world for digital nomads to temporarily work and live.
In Chiang Mai, digital nomads can easily enjoy fast WiFi, busy co-working spaces, cultural attractions, comfortable accommodations, excursions with friends, and delicious local food on a budget of $1,000 USD per month or less if they’re frugal. With so many services and resources in the area already geared towards remote workers, there’s no reason not to set up shop there. But while Chiang Mai stills offers a lower cost of living than other Thai cities, accommodations aren’t quite as cheap as they once were. For example, the Nimman neighborhood is a favorite amongst remote workers, and it is also one of the more expensive neighborhoods for renters in Chiang Mai.
Locals in cities like Chiang Mai can certainly benefit from the business that digital nomads bring, but privileged international visitors overstepping their boundaries bring up echoes of colonialism. However well-intended, some efforts to change these cities take place without the involvement of locals.
Papadopoulos described being invited to a fundraising event last year hosted by expats who wanted to end Chiang Mai’s “burning season.” At the end of the yearly dry season in February and March, a combination of natural forest fires and farmers burning crop fields results in a smoky haze that lingers over the city for months and severely affects the air quality in the region. It’s an issue worth tackling, but Papadopoulos found herself disappointed in the way it was handled.
“When I arrived, I have to admit I wasn't at all surprised to see that the hosts and attendees of this event were all digital nomads and expats, with a small handful of Thais who clearly weren't local farmers. I honestly don't know whether or not the local farmers were consulted regarding this particular event,” said Papadopoulos. “The desire to ‘change things for the better’ without including those impacted by the change is deeply neocolonial. Will improving the air quality benefit the local people? Absolutely. But the decision as to why and how that happens must include them.” As far as advocating for change in these regions, Papadopoulos offers a clear guideline to follow: “Don’t make decisions about people without people.”
Can remote workers coexist with locals in a way that benefits both parties? The consensus seems to be yes—but it takes some extra effort on their part.
While cultural exchange and international friendships are undoubtedly valuable, Sutherland-Miller acknowledges that if digital nomads truly want to have a positive impact on the cities they work from, they need to be exceptionally conscious of where their money goes. “What we bring to the table, primarily, for the communities that we visit, is money. We need to be doing a better job at considering how and where we invest that, from our dinner purchases to our philanthropic efforts,” said Sutherland-Miller.
After all, the reason that digital nomads are able to enjoy luxuries for low prices in these countries is because their dollar stretches further than Thai baht or Indonesian rupiah. Spending those dollars wisely is crucial. As Strauss sums up her philosophy on ethical spending, “More guesthouses and local cafes, fewer Holiday Inns and Burger Kings. Travel is more fun that way anyway; who wants to fly around the world to eat McNuggets?”
As remote work becomes commonplace, more people will likely hit the road and embrace the digital nomad label, and there is plenty of room for positive change. Making an effort to integrate with the community instead of merely connecting with fellow remote workers is key. “As travelers, we need to be deeply self-aware, intentional in forming respectful relationships with local people, and committed to learning about the place we’re in while recognizing we’re in someone else's home,” said Papadopoulos. “I hope to see more digital nomads motivated by a desire to learn from others as opposed to primarily being driven by the idea of living more comfortably in a ‘cheaper' place.”
Jane Harkness is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. Her writing has been published on Thought Catalog, Student Universe, Pink Pangea, and more.