Europe looks to attract digital nomads to revitalise villages


The so-called nomad movement was already under way before the virus closed down cities and workplaces, forcing people to work from home.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaellie

Published: Mon 6 Sep 2021, 8:25 PM

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has closed some traditional doors, but ironically the forced isolation could actually bring renewed life to depopulated villages in Europe. Growing market acceptance of remote working has led several European nations to offer digital nomad visas and even cash incentives to foreigners who are willing to settle.

The so-called nomad movement was already under way before the virus closed down cities and workplaces, forcing people to work from home. Before mostly freelancers, the remote workforce went mainstream in 2020 as the fully employed joined its ranks. While many have returned to the office, many have not, a significant number who have declined to return to the in-person workplace and have set out on a new course.

It’s one of those counter-intuitive twists of fate that one occasionally encounters: quarantine might eventually lead to greater freedom than we had before.

The stereotypical pre-pandemic digital nomad was young, adventurous and of course digitally savvy — but in terms of economic desirability was probably just a step up from the budget backpacker.

But with highly paid employees from Google, Facebook and many others set free to live wherever they want so long as there’s a fast, reliable Internet connection, digital nomads have taken on a more burnished image. Though the terms can get blurred, some are actually entrepreneurs who have the potential to create jobs and tax revenues in a foreign country.

Initiatives in Europe range from villages whose goals are remote freelancers with a modest income level to entire countries that want the digitally brilliant who can boost employment and the economy.

Some of the villages are breathtaking due to their incredible scenery, history and time-honoured culture. They can also be remarkable for demonstrating something profound in the human spirit — the determination to stay alive even after decades of sharp decline. Following WWII many of Europe’s remote towns were depopulated as people left in search of city jobs during the recovery and subsequent economic boom. Some hamlets have become true ghost towns.

The bewildering list of ancient settlements now courting digital nomads includes villages in Spain and Italy that would each be a strong tourist draw if set in another country. They are not Disneyesque — they are the real deal that inspired people such as Walt Disney.

Imbued with that history and beauty, mayors and local citizens are determined to save their hometowns by becoming innovators themselves as they unveil incentive packages that include 1-euro homes, relocation money, tax breaks and fast Internet.

And Italy now has added firepower — some 1 billion euros from EU Covid-19 recovery funds earmarked for bringing fast Internet and other improvements to villages seemingly lost in time, mostly in the south of the country, which Culture Minister Dario Franceschini calls “the embodiment of Italy’s identity”.

Ultra-fast Internet and other improvements in the hamlets are intended to attract the growing number of Italians and foreigners looking to relocate from cities to the countryside.

“The emergency has upset the social and working habits of Italians who have returned to looking at the countryside not only as a destination for trips out of town but as a lifestyle choice to enjoy larger living spaces with a greater feeling of safety and wellbeing,” said a report by agricultural organisation Coldiretti, which noted that previously just 76 per cent of families in the Italian countryside had Internet access.

In Spain, dozens of small villages are offering digital nomads cash payments and other incentives to relocate. The National Network of Welcoming Villages, which has around 30 members, is trying to lure foreign remote workers by providing co-working spaces, high-speed Internet and up to $3,500 in moving expenses.

Examples include Benarraba, a hamlet with fewer than 500 residents in the north region of Andalusia, which says digital nomads can live for around $457 a week, or Tolox, a village with a population of 2,250 in the Sierra de las Nieves mountains where the cost of living is a thrifty $175 per week.

According to the website by one specialist who calls herself Nomad Girl, at least 32 countries are now offering digital nomad visas to qualified foreigners, including Germany, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Iceland, Norway and Portugal in addition to Spain and Italy.

Billing itself as the first digital nomad village in Europe, Ponta do Sol on the tiny volcanic island of Madeira, one of two autonomous regions in Portugal, began its modern Internet-based incarnation in February. It offers remote workers free working space and free Wi-Fi from 8am to 10pm daily. Developed by the regional government of Madeira, the initiative can host 100 nomads. Some 3,000 have already registered in a bid to join.

Ireland is looking for bigger players. It is offering a visa and even financial backing to foreigners who can demonstrate their company is capable of creating at least 10 jobs and 1 million euros in sales over the first three years. Last year, the programme awarded more than 120 million euros to startups.

Although by their very nature the number of digital nomads is hard to pin down, experts believe there are millions around the world. According to Steve King of the consultancy Emergent Research, around 10.9 million were living the lifestyle in America alone in 2020, a third more than the previous year. He estimates that around 60 per cent of digital nomads were employees rather than freelancers last year.

Often these days it seems like an increasingly distant goal, but the pandemic will eventually end. What will be left in its place is a world that has been fundamentally changed in some ways, perhaps most noticeably in how and where we work.

Rather than a crowded urban locale, our office could be in a beautiful village where the food and wine are delectable and cheap, the air is clean and all we hear is the bucolic sounds of the countryside.

After what we’ve all been through over the last 20 months we deserve an idyll such as that. Europe is working to help make the dream possible.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are journalists based in Milan

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