S2, E25: The Promise and Peril of Digital Nomadism

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, an AFAR editor—and digital nomad—explores the dark side of working remotely.

Digital nomadism has been hailed as a way to save communities—and slammed as raising rents and pricing out locals. In this week’s episode of Unpacked, AFAR associate editor of destinations, Chloe Arrojado, explores the complicated ethics of digital nomadism.


Brent Hartinger, digital nomad:  As with any community or anything in the world, there are pros and cons, and it’s messy and it’s complicated and there’s dark side and there’s a light side. I feel like I’m a better person now that I’m nomading. I feel like the people I meet are generally living their lives more authentically. And more ethically. And so I feel like nomading has been a net plus for the world in spite of the fact that, you know, there have certainly been growing pains.

Aislyn Greene, host: I’m Aislyn Greene, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. And this week, we’re exploring the complicated ethics of digital nomadism. Our guide for this episode is Chloe Arrojado. Chloe is an associate editor who heads up our destination stories—and, as you’ll hear in a second, she’s also a digital nomad.

Aislyn: Hi, Chloe.

Chloe Arrojado, host: Hey, Ace, how are you?

Aislyn: Good. Where, where are you? Where in the world are you right now?

Chloe: I’m actually in New York. I’m currently in Harlem in an apartment and, yeah, just really enjoying New York summer. But it has definitely been quite hot, I will say.

Aislyn: So basically you’re saying right now that you are actively digital nomading.

Chloe: Yeah. Yeah. I’m taking—

Aislyn: Digitally nomading? I don’t know.

Chloe: Yeah, I guess the, the digital nomading—I, I use it as a verb. Everything can be a verb if you add an “ing.”

Aislyn: Exactly. That’s what we’re doing. We’re making new words right now.

Chloe: Exactly. Um, so yeah, I am actively digital nomading, I would say, which is kind of perfect, I guess, for this episode.

Aislyn: Well, what kind of sparked your interest in this story?

Chloe: Before even AFAR decided that this was something that we were interested in covering to some extent, I was an active digital nomad.

There was a period of my life where I was living out of my car, traveling across the country, and then typing articles at Panera Breads in random small towns. Um, but it’s been, I think, a very interesting ride seeing the rise of things like van life and how people are living out their digital nomad dreams, you know, whether that be being in a small town in another country, or going to national parks every weekend. I think just the amount of interesting people I’ve met, and then seeing how travel has changed has made me, like, really interested in learning more about digital nomadism and how that’s impacting travel overall.

Aislyn: Yeah. And for this episode, you focus specifically on ethics. What has your experience around that been? Like, how has that evolved for you as you’ve nomad-ed?

Chloe: Yeah, exactly. Actually that’s a great question because, you know, it’s not something that I had thought about, you know, in the ethical sense when I first started doing it. I was like, “OK, I’m just working on my laptop in a coffee shop.” And then not really thinking broader than that, what that actually means.

For me, it was visiting other countries [that opened my eyes to the ethics of it.] For example, when I was in Medellín, in Colombia, and seeing, you know, the extent that digital nomadism has impacted communities. There’s like a whole neighborhood called El Poblado, which is basically the hot spot for digital nomads, and it’s very obvious in the way that, you know, like, how much more expensive things are over there when it comes to apartments, foods, the makeup of the community there—a lot of foreign expats compared to, you know, a lot of locals.

And seeing, you know, I guess the different attitudes people had towards digital nomads because for them they were like, “Oh, we’re helping the Colombian economy by putting our money there.” And, you know, thinking that’s kind of the end of the conversation while locals are like, “No, you’re actually displacing us.” Raising rents and doing a lot of things that a lot of people, I think, read about when it comes to digital nomads in places like Mexico City.

Especially because a lot of people who are digital nomads, as you’ll hear in the podcast episode, do have privileges, you know, whether that be like passport privilege or, you know, socioeconomic privilege, um, and seeing how that can really change communities, even if in your eyes, you’re just working on a laptop in a coffee shop.

Aislyn: There’s going to be so much to dig into. Well, before I let you go, you have some stories online that are actually offering some concrete advice for digital nomads, right?

Chloe: Yeah, we’re gonna definitely have some things on, you know, whether that be places to look at if you’re interested in working remotely, or intel as to, you know, what is exactly a digital nomad, how would you define it, and kind of getting into that. Because sometimes, it, like, can be very hard to define, as we know in this episode.

Aislyn: Yeah, OK, sweet. Uh, we will link to all of that in our show notes. Well, thank you so much, Chloe.

Chloe: Thank you, Ace. I’m really excited to get into it.

Aislyn: Yeah. All right. Let’s go.

Chloe: Yeah, woo!

[Music break]

Chloe: Picture this: You’re in Bali, Indonesia, working remotely from your laptop. Right outside your window are the calm blue waters and white sands of the beach. It’s the perfect day to go surfing, and you decide that you’re going to do just that.

Track: Zoom meeting call sound

Chloe: At least, after your Zoom meeting.

You’ve probably heard of the not-so elusive digital nomad. Whether they’re creating hot spots in Bali and Lisbon, or allegedly raising rent prices in Mexico, these work-from-anywhere travelers seem to be all the rage in our postpandemic society. I mean, it makes sense considering that working away from the office is now so much more common. In 2022, 34 percent of employed people did at least some of their work at home, compared to just 24 percent in 2019.

But, what exactly is a digital nomad, anyways? I spoke with Olga Hannonen, a researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. Hannonen coauthored a 2020 paper that attempted to define this group of workers. Turns out, the term “digital nomad” was first used more than 20 years ago by authors Tsugio Makimotot and David Manners.

Olga Hannonen, researcher: The term was, I believe it was introduced by Makimoto and Manners in 1997. Makimoto and Manners, they wrote a book called Digital Nomad and they tried to estimate the pace of technological development and how that would influence our life, how that would change our travel patterns and the way we accomplish work.

Chloe: In that book, Makimoto and Manners actually predicted the remote work situation. And it was scarily accurate. Listen to this quote from the book: “With the ability to tap into every worldwide public information source from anywhere on the globe, and the ability to talk to anyone via a video link, humans are going to be given the opportunity, if they want it, of being global nomads.” And remember—this book was published in 1997!

According to Hannonen’s paper, there are three parts to being a digital nomad. First, they are highly mobile professionals. Second, they have location-independent jobs. And thirdly, they travel on a semi-permanent basis. But it’s important to note there is no one agreed-upon set of qualifications that make someone a “digital nomad.” For example, self-employment tech company MBO Partners says they are people who work remotely and travel for “various reasons and lengths of time.” Pretty broad, right? But anthropologist Dave Cook, he says digital nomads need to visit at least three locations a year in order to qualify as one. But there are some generally accepted similarities and themes.

Olga: Usually they are defined as Westerners or Europeans or in general, holders of strong passports. So meaning that digital nomads are coming from the countries that have extensive travel possibilities.

Chloe: Oftentimes, these people work in sectors like IT, digital marketing, writing, and even online teaching. As to why someone would want to become a digital nomad, it all comes down to travel. Their ability to explore places flexibly makes them a traveler—and consumer—category all on their own. So much so that tourism boards are working on special ways to market their city, state, or country to them.

Many destinations around the world are appealing to remote workers by creating digital nomad visas. These visas allow travelers to stay—and more importantly spend—in a specific country for months or even years.

There are more than 20 countries that have developed visa programs specifically targeting remote workers. The programs vary from country to country. Colombia’s visa invites remote workers to stay for two years, with the stipulation that applicants can’t work for Colombian companies. Meanwhile, Canada released its plans for a digital nomad visa in July 2023, offering to actually extend a traveler’s stay in the country for three more years if they land a job with a Canadian employer.

Another country getting in on the action is Croatia, which released its digital nomad visa in 2020. Their visa allows remote workers and their family members to stay in Croatia for up to a year, given that they make around 2,500 euros a month.

One of the visa’s biggest advocates is Luci Jerkovic, head of the Global PR department for the Croatian National Tourist Board.

Luci Jerkovic, head of PR for Croatian National Tourist Board: You’re attracting them to a country that has a mild climate, that’s well connected, that’s beautiful in and of itself, that tourists flock to all the time—for them to come and enjoy it in the off season when the cost of accommodation is less.

Chloe: Croatian cities Dubrovnik and Istria have further appealed to digital nomads with a program called Digital Nomads-in-Residence. Usually held over a month, the program puts together cultural activities and workshops, encouraging digital nomads to spend time in the destination—especially when it’s not flooded with tourists in the summertime.

Luci: What I think we’re doing as a tourist board is we’re trying to make Croatia more interesting in the shoulder season and year round which, you know, digital nomads can also do that—come in the spring, come in the fall, come in the middle of winter.

Chloe: Yes, even winter. Luci says that in 2022, Istria hosted the program during the first week of December. And while it wasn’t warm enough for a swim by the coast, the mild weather was great for being out in nature.

Luci: So if they come and they stay in December and see that, you know, instead of one restaurant in the place being open, there can be two or three, then there is going to be more people coming there. And I think that we’ll just kind of alleviate the burden in the high peak season.

And if they’re making significantly more money, they have a lot of money to be able to spend. So then you’re gonna be developing products for them to spend it on. So it is a way of bringing in money into the system.

Chloe: Croatia’s digital nomad visa offers a number of benefits to remote workers—one of the biggest being that they are not required to pay income taxes to the Croatian government (but that doesn’t mean travelers are exempt from paying taxes back home). Plus, because the country entered the Schengen Zone at the beginning of 2023, holders of the visa are also allowed free movement throughout this region of 27 countries in Western and Central Europe during their year in Croatia.

So there are definitely benefits for digital nomads. And Luci—and the Croatian government—believe the remote work system has benefits for Croatia, too. Like, culture-changing benefits.

Luci: The country has a low population, which keeps decreasing from census to census. That’s not good. It’s a country that’s been known for emigrating, so leaving the country. Bringing people back, bringing the number of people that stay in the country is also important for longer-term demographic growth.

Chloe: Luci believes that some of these digital nomads could eventually become full-time—and tax-paying—residents.

Luci: If you’re bringing people into the country that explore the country and see it as a good place to live and work, they might forgo the taxation benefit for that one year and then move here permanently, taking the taxes into consideration.

Chloe: But what about the not-so-positive effects of digital nomads we all hear about? As foreigners with higher incomes come to stay in a place like Croatia, I had to ask Luci: Has there been a lot of pushback from locals?

Luci: Um, I don’t think so. I think more pushback ends up happening, but that happens to students as well as other populations that are residing in cities that tend to be in high tourist areas. It tends to be those that wanna stay longer term, that get pushed out of accommodation due to the seasonality of tourism in the country.

Chloe: In reality, Luci says digital nomads are more likely to be on the other side of the issue. Like students, they may have trouble finding long-term accommodation during the high season in popular cities like Dubrovnik and Split.

Luci: They’re not the cause of prices going up. Even in cities like Zagreb, which, you know, rent has gone up significantly, when they compare to their home countries, they might be paying, uh, less than in their home countries, so they feel like they’re getting a deal. It might be more expensive than what someone here would be paying. So someone local might be saying, “Oh look, they’re, you know, bringing the rent up.” But usually, most locals would not be able to pay for the type of accommodation some of the digital nomads are targeting anyways.

Chloe: Besides a few additional amenities, Luci said she hasn’t really seen landlords charging more or transforming their apartments to appeal to digital nomads.

Luci: I think transforming in the sense of giving a desk space, making sure that there’s high-speed internet available, that it’s not just one of those sort of mobile internets that they might have put in in the high season. Some have invested in those types of modifications, but it’s not something that has increased the cost or has changed sort of the structure, at a significant level.

Chloe: However, not all communities have seen remote workers as a welcome answer to tourism ills. But for that side of the story, we travel halfway around the world to the shores of Hawai‘i.

During the pandemic, Hawai‘i was one of the states that suffered the most. Hawai‘i is highly dependent on the tourism economy, and the pandemic just destroyed the industry. By August 2020, more than one out of six jobs were gone.

That year, a nonprofit called Movers and Shakas created a program inviting 50 remote workers to live in Hawai‘i for a month. The program was a public-private initiative developed by leaders from local businesses, like the Hawaiian restaurant chain Zippy’s, and government entities like Hawai‘i’s department of business and economic development and tourism. Its main goal? Boost Hawaiʻi’s economy.

Nicole Lim: And so, the idea was, you know, let’s bring 50 remote workers, including returning Kamaʻāina, or people who had been born and raised here, to come for a month and experience Hawai‘i in a more authentic way and be able to volunteer with their specific skill sets and expertise professionally for local nonprofits.

Chloe: That’s Nicole Lim, executive director of Movers and Shakas. She said that the program was immediately, and wildly, popular. Like 90,000 applications for 50 spots–level popular.

Nicole: There was an incredible interest in this program. It was covered by everyone from New York Times to CNN to Wall Street Journal and just nationally very popular.

Chloe: But Nicole wasn’t always so thrilled with the program. Before she joined Movers and Shakas, she along with other locals protested the idea of remote workers coming to Hawai‘i’s shores.

Nicole: So a mainland acquaintance had reached out and asked me, “Oh, should I apply for this?” And when I looked it up, I was like, “WTF,” you know? Like, why are we bringing tech bros drenched with COVID to Hawai‘i during a pandemic? They’re gonna drive my rent up. They’re gonna destroy the aloha spirit and they’re gonna harass dolphins, maybe monk seals. And I felt so strongly about this that I wrote an op-ed in the local daily newspaper here, the Star Advertiser, against the program.

Chloe: But in an ironic twist of fate, the board reached out and they asked if she was interested in running the program.The opportunity to shape the program made Nicole check her own perspective, not just as a Hawaiian resident, but also as a traveler: Before returning to Hawai‘i during the pandemic, Nicole had been away for 20 years, traveling around the world living a little bit of what she calls an Eat, Pray, Love meets Wild–type of existence.

Writing her op-ed and becoming a part of the Movers and Shakas program made her confront the anti-outsider sentiment she felt, especially as she’d spent a good chunk of her life benefiting from the constant exchange of experiences, ideas, and connections she found in traveling.

Nicole: The us-versus-them tribal mentality, that anti-outsiderism, is so innate. It is psychologically programmed, evolutionarily programmed in our brains. And it’s strong, it’s powerful, it’s palpable. And we have to acknowledge that it exists. We can’t really deny or repress it and also kind of do that inner work—work through the discomfort and ask ourselves: “Well, how do we bring newcomers into a community? How do we learn and grow from each other and how do we ultimately hold everyone accountable to the community, including ourselves?”

Chloe: With the first group of digital nomads, Nicole wanted to emphasize the importance of living Hawai‘i’s values—values like kindness and compassion in the spirit of aloha, and kuleana, the reciprocal relationship that comes from a person’s responsibility. But even though she set out to create a community that was harmonious with the locals, the program participants weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.

Nicole: It was kind of what I wrote in that op-ed. Like, why are people in Hawai‘i during COVID? They tend to have a lot of money and they’re gonna, like, rent or buy places, which did happen actually, not, not necessarily participants in our program, but a lot of remote workers, a lot of people from California could come—came and bought places here.

It was pricing out a lot of local people. This is a trend over decades now, but, you know, people who are born and raised here can’t afford to stay. And so they have to move away.

Chloe: While the 50 participants in the program weren’t really the problem, the program—at first—symbolized some of the larger problems within Hawai‘i.

Nicole: We became, I think, a lightning rod for that, like a place to put that anger.

Chloe: Nicole got to work, consistently evolving the program to match the needs of the destination. With assistance from the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization, she researched the housing situation. Eventually, Movers and Shakas decided to partner with a hotel for their second cohort in 2022. Participants shared a floor in the hotel as the program aimed to create an Olympic village–style atmosphere.

Going into the third cohort in spring 2023, Movers and Shakas decided to change direction. The organization shifted the focus away from recruiting remote workers, instead directing efforts at helping new and returning residents live and work successfully in Hawai‘i. The program also decided to appeal to local employers and help them retain and empower leaders.

Nicole: I think this current evolution is the best way we can—with our resources, it’s kind of like we’re a startup, you know, and we, we, we’re trying to evolve, um, with the world. We’re always thinking about “How can we make the biggest impact for a small org, on Hawai‘i?”

Chloe: For Nicole, the program is about bringing in talent that can benefit the state in some way.

Nicole: I think remote workers, like anyone, have an opportunity and a responsibility to their host communities, to be a part of it, to contribute.

And I encourage remote workers to do so. There might not be a Movers and Shakas remote worker program that helps facilitate that. So you might have to take more of an initiative. But like anything, the more you’re a part of a community, the deeper the experience you have is.

Chloe: Lim has learned a lot as the program’s executive director and has suggestions for remote workers hoping to integrate with the communities they visit. First, think about how you’re consuming resources in a community. Even if you’re just staying for a week, ask yourself: What do you have to learn? And second, think about how you can give to the community—not just in the sense of money, but also in the shared sense of responsibility for the place you’re staying.

It’s a lesson that Brent Hartinger and Michael Jensen, a couple from Seattle, have learned over the years. They’ve traveled nomadically around the world since 2017. Their newsletter, Brent and Michael Are Going Places focuses on their adventures as a gay digital nomad couple and has more than 4,000 subscribers. While they acknowledge that digital nomads, like them, can impact a community, they also feel a lot of the sentiment against digital nomads isn’t warranted.

Brent Hartinger: I feel like some of the backlash against nomading has been so silly because they’re comparing the world of nomading to some perfect paradise that doesn’t exist and that wouldn’t exist if nomads didn’t exist.

As with any community or anything in the world, there are pros and cons, and it’s messy and it’s complicated and there’s a dark side and there’s a light side. For me personally, I feel like I’m a better person now that I’m nomading. I feel like the people I meet are generally better.

Chloe: In Brent’s eyes, nomading has been a net plus for the world, despite the growing pains.

Brent: As I said, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but I think that a lot, a lot of times the baby gets thrown out with the bath water and people, people talk about this and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They have not talked to local communities like we have. They don’t know what nomading is, they they just have impressions that they get from Instagram.

Michael Jensen: Or they focus on the worst examples of the change.

Chloe: Michael even agrees on some of the safeguards governments put in place to stop digital nomads from negatively impacting communities.

Michael: I 100 percent support governments. I support Barcelona for regulating Airbnbs and keeping apartments affordable for people who live there.

Anything the local population wants to do regarding tourism in their country, that’s—I think that’s great. They have the right. They should be doing what they think is best for their community.

Chloe: To be the type of digital nomads that aren’t bad-mouthed on the internet, the couple makes sustainable tourism a core part of their nomadic adventures. Their top tip? Don’t contribute to overtourism in popular places.

Brent: We like to live in second- and third-tier cities, sort of off the beaten track. That’s where we’ll set down for a month or two or three. And then in between those stops, we will go to the big city, the big tourist attraction, we’ll stay there for a week, and then we’ll be tourists.

Chloe: They started doing this after their first year on the road. They noticed that locals in really popular destinations were frustrated with all the tourists, which also made it hard to meet people. But leave the hot spots and it’s a completely different story.

Brent: You go five feet to either direction off the beaten track and people are so flattered and honored you come to stay in their community. And then it’s really easy to meet local people and they’re, they’re honored that you’re there and it’s just a better experience.

Chloe: Brent and Michael also try to lessen their leakage, which is a measurement of how many tourism dollars leave the local economy and instead benefit multinational corporations, foreign companies, or countries. For them, minimizing leakage comes in the form of being hypervigilant when spending money. They do things like hire local guides and stay at places run by people in the community.

But economics aside, one of the biggest ways they’ve made an effort to become a part of the community is by fighting for causes they believe in.

Michael: As a gay couple, what we try and focus on is shedding light on certain discriminations that are happening. When we were in Istanbul, Pride is illegal in Türkiye, the past five or six years, and these really brave young people in Istanbul held Pride anyway, and we went and attended it. And we marched with them, and we got tear gassed along with them, and then we wrote about it. So we shared their story.

Chloe: For Brent and Michael, community involvement means writing articles about the lessons they’ve learned from the people they encounter and interviewing members of the gay communities in the places they visit. And they say: Whatever issue you’re passionate about, find a way to support it, find a way to do that.

Michael: Maybe you’re really concerned with the environment. Maybe you’re concerned with racial issues. Maybe it’s, uh, equality of women, how women are treated in different countries. All kinds of volunteer opportunities you can do, to help people in those countries have a little bit better.

Chloe: But, he says, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough.

Michael: You’re not going to go out and solve all the world’s problems in one fell swoop. But do tend a little bit to your corner of the world, and you’re going to make it a little bit better. And if everybody does that, well, things do get better.

Aislyn: Well said. I think there’s a lot we can take from this concept, even for those of us who aren’t digital nomads. And as Chloe highlighted throughout the episode, it’s almost impossible to fully define the ethics of working remotely. So much is dependent on the destination—and the perspective. We’ve heard how people can see remote workers as a solution to tourism problems, as well as the ways they can make a destination’s problems worse.

Chloe also shared that it can be disheartening when the communities we visit aren’t as welcoming as we want them to be. But, she says, as travelers, we have the power to change perceptions—whether staying at a destination for days or months at a time—and it starts with a genuine effort to connect with others.

If you’d like to give this lifestyle a whirl, we’ll share links to some of our digital nomad stories in our show notes. And you can keep up with Chloe’s constantly moving lifestyle on Instagram, @heychlokay. If you’d like to follow Brent and Michael, check out their website (and sign up for their newsletter) at brentandmichaelaregoingplaces.com. To learn more about Movers and Shakas, visit www.moversandshakas.org. And if you’re interested in Croatia’s digital nomad visa, apply at mup.gov.hr (we’ll share the full link in our show notes).

That’s it for this week, thanks for listening. Next week, we’ll be back with another “If These Walls Could Talk,” our series that explores the stories—and secrets—hotels can tell about the places we visit.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.