Is the Golden Age of Digital Nomading Coming to an End?
I don't want to be That Guy, but a tsunami of change is about hit the nomad movement.
In 2016, the night of Donald Trump’s election, I was so upset I turned to Michael and said, “Let’s sell our house and leave the country.”
“But where would we live?” Michael asked me.
I had to think about this. “Maybe we can move around, living in different countries for months at a time.”
Michael quickly agreed, but we both had a lot of questions. We were lucky enough to already have remote jobs, but wouldn’t all that traveling be stressful? Wouldn’t we get lonely? Wouldn’t it be expensive?
In fact, it wasn’t until early 2017, months after we’d begun planning our travels, that Michael and I first heard the term “digital nomad.” We discovered a lot of people were already doing a variation on what we’d decided to do, and most of our questions had very specific answers.
We’ve heard a lot about digital nomading since then. The whole world has. Planet Earth has discovered the digital nomad — along with previously fringe concepts like “coworking,” “cohousing,” and “remote work.”
There were online resources even back when we decided to become nomads, but absolutely nothing like the deluge that exists now.
As a result, nomading has become a bonafide phenomenon, at least among the privileged creative class from wealthier countries.
Meanwhile, Covid hastened the remote work revolution — which was already underway due to changes in technology — and is reportedly causing a lot of people to rethink their personal priorities. Both trends will almost certainly lead to an even greater rise in all kinds of long-term travel.
“Now that workers have had a taste of freedom, and bosses no longer have an excuse to shackle cube dwellers to their white speckled Formica desks, who knows?” says of Mack Sullivan of Geekstreamers, an online project documenting the adventures of a couple of self-described nomadic nerds. “Covid may have been the hammer that shattered the 1984 dystopian future of mass conformity.”
How many digital nomads are there anyway — and how fast are our numbers growing? It’s a difficult question to answer, in part because “digital nomad” is difficult to define. How “nomadic” do you have to be — and how “digital”?
But one recent study found that the number of Americans who call themselves “digital nomads” has doubled — to more than ten million people — in just the last two years. And Covid or not, things aren’t going back to the way they were before.
At the same time, nomading is related to other recent social phenomena, like the Simple Life movement, Van Life, RV Nomading, and even FIRE (Financial Independence Retire Early) — all people putting a higher priority on life experience and personal satisfaction, and less priority on traditional “success.”
Nomading — and all these movements — are finally hitting the big-time.
None of this is necessarily a bad thing. Put me on record as someone who secretly rolls his eyes at those insufferable twits who always insist that something is ruined once it goes mainstream.
It’s an objectively good thing that more people are choosing organic fruits and vegetables. And it’s liberating not to be tethered to one cable TV company — to now be able to pay only for the viewing options you actually want.
But even I agree that once something goes mainstream, it changes. The definition of “organic” becomes watered down. And we can end up paying even more for the streaming services we want than we ever did for that cable bill we thought was so outrageous.
The same kind of mainstreaming is happening right now to nomading and all long-term travel. When Michael and I started nomading in late 2017, our experience was different from those who started in 2007 — and their experience was different from those who did it in 1997.
But the experience is already very different from only four years ago. Because of all the different, and converging, social trends, the rate of change is almost certainly faster now — and the changes themselves are more dramatic.
“Social media has encouraged boring, self-obsessed people to travel,” laughs Keith Lang of Nomad Flag, an online resource for nomads and “slow travel” aficionados.
Still, even if this emerging new version of nomading is a bad thing, I’d be a hypocrite for decrying it. Michael and I literally write this very newsletter evangelizing the nomad lifestyle. And as a screenwriter, I have a romcom feature film in development about the experience too.
Regardless, the future of nomading will not be the same as even the recent past.
Does that mean the Golden Age of nomading is finally coming to an end?
The answer to that depends on your point of view.
But no matter your point of view, the changes to nomading aren’t stopping any time soon. If anything, a tsunami of even greater change is gathering, about to crash down over the whole phenomenon.
What kinds of changes? Let’s explore them one by one.
Nomading is Becoming More Expensive
When Michael and I decided to become this weird thing called “digital nomads,” we were very worried about the cost. Back then, we had nothing to compare it to, except the cost of being on vacation or holiday, which typically ranges from somewhat to very expensive.
At the end of our first year of nomading, we were shocked to find we’d only spent $42,000 USD for the whole year — about half what we’d spent leading a much more modest lifestyle back in Seattle. And that first year nomading even included two months living on cruise ships.
Why were we spending so little? Mostly, because we’d ended up living half the year in countries where the cost of living was extremely cheap by Western standards.
But prices are rising, even in these “cheap” countries.
Pre-Covid, the travel industry was bigger than it had ever been in all of human history. Demand was exceeding supply, and prices were already climbing.
When Covid finally ends, most observers expect the boom to pick up right where it left off — and maybe even outpace it, because of pent-up demand and those reconsidered personal priorities.
Which means prices will continue to rise. We’re already seeing this in the rapidly climbing prices on Airbnb, even in out-of-the-way locations.
“We’ve definitely noticed,” says Tyler Milton of Luke and Tyler Travel, a pair of partly nomadic YouTubers. “It seems like Airbnb is using Covid as a reason to charge more for cleaning fees, and the service fees seem more expensive as well.”
Geekstreamer’s Mack Sullivan agrees. “Eventually, the supply for Airbnbs will adjust to the demand and the prices will stabilize, but we don’t have any expectation that prices will go down.”
But what if the post-Covid demand for travel is even greater than expected? Sullivan says most of his American friends have mostly stuck to domestic travel this past year. “What will happen when those people return to the skies, along with all the newly minted nomads?”
Smart nomads now employ different strategies to combat these rising prices — traveling in the off-season, negotiating with hosts, and using different rental platforms.
But lodging isn’t the only cost to travel, and these other prices are rising too. In existing nomad hubs — places like Chiang Mai, Thailand; Bali, Indonesia; Colombo, Sri Lanka; Tbilisi, Georgia; and Mexico City, Mexico — the cost of living just isn’t what it used to be.
Then again, why would it be? These places have become more popular — in part, because nomads themselves have spent the last decade bragging about the “cheap” cost of living and Instagramming the hell out of the natural beauty.
“We’re now seeing the effect of all those videos on the cost of living in those places on YouTube,” says Tracey Johnson, the founder of NomadGirl, another online nomad resource.
Plus, governments and businesses in these destinations have spent the last decade hearing complaints from nomads about inconsistent Wi-Fi speeds and other subpar infrastructure.
As a result, many cities and businesses have spent a lot of money upgrading themselves, and all the things that nomads complain about are now dramatically better. So why wouldn’t the locals expect to be compensated?
Then there’s the fact that — duh! — prices are rising everywhere. Inflation is up all over the world, for travelers and non-travelers alike.
Look, a nomadic lifestyle is always going to be cheaper than a more conventional life in an affluent country, if only because nomads are location independent: if prices rise too fast in one place, we have the option to simply pick up and move somewhere cheaper.
And here’s another thing that’s true about nomading in 2021 and beyond: new countries are vying to become players in the nomad game, so for the foreseeable future, there will always be newer, cheap options for nomads.
But in the existing nomad hubs and more familiar destinations? Prices simply aren’t going to be what they’ve been.
Which leads directly to another point: many destinations are also getting more crowded.
Nomadic Hotspots Are Getting More Crowded — and Locals More Frustrated
The concept of travel is nothing new, of course. But the concept of the “digital nomad” truly is a relatively recent phenomenon.
That’s because of changes in technology — the “digital” part of digital nomad — have allowed far more people to travel while continuing to work their same job.
Many nomads live much cheaper than back in their home countries, in beautiful, sunny locations, in the midst of friendly, fascinating cultures.
Even without social media, it was only a matter of time before word got out about something this great.
Well, word is officially out.
“It was obvious in Mexico City,” says Geekstreamer’s Mack Sullivan. “The coffee shops were full of remote workers conducting interviews, business transactions, and video calls.”
Meanwhile, in the last decade, nomad hotspots like Bali, Indonesia, have been completely transformed — and not for the better. Eat, Pray, Love may have gotten the Bali ball rolling, but nomads have since descended en masse.
Indeed, nomading overkill is related to the greater problem of overtourism in general — the idea that so many outsiders can visit a particular place that it ruins whatever made the place special in the first place.
“We saw that on a recent trip to Paris,” says Luke and Tyler Travel’s Tyler Milton. “We didn't plan or book anything in advance, which we usually do — we thought we'd be more spontaneous. Unfortunately, all the major tourist attractions were completely booked. The Louvre was booked three months out.”
“As long as people can make others envious with their selfies in front of famous landmarks, these places will always suffer from overtourism,” says Nomad Flag’s Keith Lang.
On one hand, nomading is different from traditional tourist travel in important ways. Nomads tend to travel slower and stay longer, living farther away from tourist centers and being much more likely to patronize local businesses.
Furthermore, nomads tend to be “early adopters” in the travel market, traveling to more out-of-the-way places, and filling the gaps in between high seasons.
Bansko, Bulgaria, for example, was already the location of a popular ski resort with a wide range of tourist amenities, but only in the winter months; the town was mostly deserted the rest of the year, until a couple of enterprising Europeans turned it into a thriving, year-round hub for nomads.
Likewise, nomads helped sustain some tourist economies during the Covid months.
“Madeira Island’s economy was demolished by the pandemic,” says Keith Lang of Nomad Flag. “But the local government, in cooperation with movers and shakers in the digital nomad movement, helped bring a new type of traveler to the island, even during major European lockdowns. I spent two months in Madeira in early 2021, and it was magical.”
But just because the footprint of a nomad is lighter than that of a traditional tourist, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
Frank Riela, an American with Italian heritage, has lived on the island of Ortygia, the historical center of the Italian city of Syracuse, off and on, since 2005. Back then, he estimates that it was maybe two percent foreigners and the rest were local Italians.
“I watched Syracuse go from a charming local place with a handful of foreigners, where I had to speak Italian, to a place that’s inundated with tourists,” Riela says.
“There are limits to what any place can sustain,” agrees Geekstreamer’s Mack Sullivan. “The best we can do as travelers is set a good example, be thoughtful about when and where we go, and be intentional about how we put our dollars into the local economy.”
All of which is important and true. But two other things are also true:
Wherever a nomad now goes, other nomads will probably be there too, more than ever before.
And many communities — and many countries — have finally had enough of the crush of people and are now firmly pushing back.
The Era of “Wild West” Nomading is Over
The fact is, most travel destinations have a love-hate relationship with tourist dollars.
“I was in Venice recently, and I saw the protests of when the first cruise ships returned, post-Covid,” says NomadGirl’s Tracey Johnson. “But what the news didn’t report on was the bigger group of locals welcoming the cruise ships’ return. When places have become too dependent on tourism, the people that earn a living on it want the tourists to return.”
Until very recently, nomads have been welcomed too — or simply flew under the tourist radar. Many nomads lived in “cheap” countries like Mexico and Thailand for a year or more, doing “border runs” to reset their tourist visas as needed. In Mexico, even overstaying your visa typically resulted in only a minor fine.
But now nomading has become too popular to ignore. Locals (understandably) want more control over their communities, and governments (understandably) want these foreign interlopers to pay for more of their upkeep.
Part of the reason why Airbnb prices have risen so dramatically is that more communities are restricting short-term rentals, and enforcing and collecting occupancy taxes.
Visa requirements are changing too. In just the last six months, Mexico has become much stricter in awarding and enforcing tourist visas — no doubt, because so many people were openly abusing the system.
Likewise, Thailand has been tightening its visa system. Border runs became impossible due to Covid restrictions, but the country was cracking down even before the pandemic.
But just because some countries are tightening their borders, that doesn’t mean they’re turning nomads away cold.
Thailand has become one of at least thirty-six countries that now offers a “digital nomad” visa, in a concerted effort to attract nomads. Many more countries are expected to offer such visas soon.
But Thailand’s nomad visa requires assets of $500,000 USD and an annual income of $80,000. (They also offer other visa options, including an “elite visa” and an “investment residency,” but both also require significant wealth.)
“These digital nomad visas are perfect for people that want to base themselves in a country for longer than six months,” says NomadGirl’s Tracey Johnson, citing the Caribbean Island of Barbados as one country that did a great roll-out of their new visa and got a lot of people to take them up on it.
But, she cautions, “Most of these digital nomad visas come with a high entry requirement in terms of income that you have to prove.”
In other words, many countries want to encourage rich nomads, who will spend the wealth locally — and discourage everyone else.
Which, of course, is exactly what you would expect. But this also means more freedom and privilege for wealthy Westerners — and less for everyone else.
I’m a nomad — with a real dog in this fight — but my sense is that many countries still don’t understand the nomading phenomenon. Many of these new nomad visas have significant fees and are difficult to apply for.
And digital nomad visas don’t necessarily shield you from local taxes — despite the fact that nomads don’t use most government benefits, and many visas require nomads to self-insure their own health insurance.
“Most digital nomad visas are not terribly good,” agrees Luke and Tyler Travel’s Tyler Milton.
Of course, countries and local communities can set whatever rules they think are appropriate. Nomads are ultimately guests in the countries we visit.
But nomads are different from traditional tourists. The best of us bring unique and attractive qualities to the places we visit.
And we go to particular destinations because it’s in our interest. If countries change the equation too much, we’ll simply go to some other country happier to see us — like the Republic of Georgia, which is currently offering a twelve-month tourist visa on arrival, specifically to attract nomads.
“Some governments are figuring this out and are offering, or will offer, a true digital nomad visa,” says Nomad Flag’s Keith Lang. “Something with an enticing benefit in terms of lifestyle and tax.”
The larger point is that border issues and other local regulations are yet more things that nomads will have to pay more attention to in the years to come. The era of “carefree” nomading is rapidly coming to a close.
Is the Golden Age of nomading over? That depends what you think about nomading now that it’s become more expensive, more crowded, and more complicated.
And that it’s almost certainly going to become even more expensive, more crowded, and more complicated in the years to come.
A lot of these changes were probably inevitable once new technologies made nomading possible in the first place. And some are happening even faster because of the Covid pandemic.
The digital nomad party is now in full-swing — with even more arrivals expected very soon.
But for me, none of this means the party’s over. Maybe I’ve simply imbibed too much of the nomading Kool-Aid, but I still love almost every aspect of my chosen lifestyle.
The future won’t be like the past. But when has it ever been?
And wherever the party goes next, I’ll be right in the thick of it. Because even now, it’s still the best, most exciting party I’ve ever attended.