Future of Travel

Digital Nomads: Are They Crowding Destinations or Reviving Them?

If it's up to these forward thinking organizations, it's the latter. 
A person with a laptop on a sled.
Dan Matutina. Art Direction by Pallavi Kumar

The Future of Travel column is a monthly series exploring the innovations and bold ideas moving travel forward.

In the small city of Ostuni in southern Italy, a group of remote workers and digital nomads arrive at a community center to meet a troupe of Italian grandmothers, or nonnas, for a pasta making class. They gather around tables to watch as the nonnas demonstrate how to slice and smash strips of hand-rolled dough to make orecchiette, one of the Apulia region’s signature pasta dishes. For locals, the culinary ritual is a familiar one, but for these newly arrived digital nomads, it's a unique glimpse into the traditions of their temporary new home.

“You have this type of cooking class in Italy now, but they’re quite touristic,” says Serena Chironna, co-founder of KINO Italy, which organizes month-long coworking retreats in lesser-known corners of Italy, where villages are at risk of extinction, and small cities like Ostuni are popular tourist destinations for only a couple months a year. “But in this case, we went to the elderly center, where they’d go every day to play cards. We cooked together and we danced. And it was something you would never do, like, dancing with some local grandmothers.”

The community center visit is just one of the many activities Chironna coordinates with KINO, where remote workers can pay a flat rate to get a month of accommodation, access to a co-working space, and experience social outings with locals. It’s among a new crop of similar programs rolling out across Europe including the EU-backed Nomadland Projectsix-month program Summer of Pioneers, which takes digital nomads to rural villages in Germany; a platform funded by the Spanish government promoting 42 rural villages; and Chateau Coliving, a 12th-century castle in rural Normandy converted into a coliving space for digital nomads.

These programs all share a common goal: lure digital nomads and remote workers away from hot spots experiencing an anti-digital nomad backlash to areas struggling with depopulation, where they believe younger talent with money to spend might reinvigorate struggling economies. But can digital nomads dancing with nonnas actually help save Europe’s fading villages? A growing number of entrepreneurs and policy makers say the answer might be yes.

Some organizers are working with rural villages to integrate digital nomads with the people who live there full time, with the goal to boost the local economy.

Andrea Edelman Kay

The nomad boom is changing where we work and travel

Programs like KINO aim to help smaller regions ride the wave of digital nomadism, while also avoiding its pitfalls. There’s no census to tell us precisely how many digital nomads there are, but estimates suggest the population has exploded in recent years. A 2022 survey by MBO Partners found the number of American digital nomads was up more than 130 percent from 2019 to 2022, reaching an estimated 16.9 million. And there’s significant money in the addressable market, which in 2021 Skift Research estimated was worth more than $1 billion.

Yet while leaders in the scene have been speaking about the potential benefits destinations might see in attracting digital nomads, it’s an increasingly contentious topic. Many argue that they are invariably transforming the destinations they gravitate to—and not necessarily in positive ways. Think rising living costs in destinations like Lisbon and Mexico City, residential homes turned into short-term rentals, and the social fabric of neighborhoods shifting to cater to higher-earning transients.

And the trend is reshaping not only the geography of work but also the way we travel, says Prithwiraj Choudhury, associate professor at Harvard Business School, who has extensively researched the topic: “Digital nomadism has definitely taken off as the work-from-anywhere phenomena has taken off.”

Even as some companies wrestle with employees over return-to-office policies, he predicts the rise in digital nomadism is here to stay. It reflects the convergence of several trends: the unprecedented shift to remote work through the pandemic lockdowns; the resulting interest among white-collar workers in extended trips blending work and travel; and a host of younger companies pursuing remote-only strategies, which Choudhury says is “another big driver of the phenomena,” citing startups like Zapier and Doist as examples.

Another sign of the trend’s staying power is the growing number of countries openly competing to attract higher-earning nomads and remote workers. In the past two years, dozens of governments have launched so-called “digital nomad visas,” with the latest being Spain and Colombia.

Choudhury has analyzed these emerging visa schemes, and believes his research shows they could boost economies through dollars spent as well as business and cultural connections between locals and nomads. And in line with the goals of Europe’s off-the-beaten-path digital nomad programs, he observes that areas outside of major cities show the most potential to benefit.

“The smaller cities have lost a lot of people. This is a great opportunity to redistribute talent,” he says. “For society, it’s a good thing.” But, of course, locals in nomad hot spots have cautionary tales to tell.

Cost of living and gentrification are central concerns for over-nomadism.

Andrea Edelman Kay

So, what actually happens when the MacBook crowds descend

Right now, most digital nomads and remote workers tend to gravitate to a couple dozen urban destinations. For a real-time look at which of these cities are trending, glance over the Nomad List, a popular website where digital nomads search for their next destination using filters ranging from “cheap places” to the questionable “places with attractive women.” In mid-2021, Lisbon saw a surge of trips logged by Nomad List users, pushing it up in the rankings. Its popularity among nomads has reached a flashpoint.

As the international tech conference Web Summit took place in the Portuguese capital this past November, protesters gathered outside on opening night, criticizing the government’s courting of digital nomads and wealthy foreigners. In the past year, similar protests have recently occurred in other digital nomad centers like Mexico City, where demonstrators encouraged remote workers to stay away. Cost of living and gentrification are central concerns.

“It’s not all the fault of digital nomads,” says Dave Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who’s been studying digital nomads for nearly a decade. “But when we’re faced with the idea that remote work is now mainstream and there are going to be millions more nomads coming online, places like Lisbon are going to really feel the pinch.” They said it raises questions about “this idea that it’s all going to trickle down while people are being displaced.”

Cook has specifically seen how “digital nomads are reshaping the urban environment” in Chiang Mai, Thailand where they’ve spent years studying digital nomads’ impacts. Along with the obvious coworking spaces, specific changes they’ve noticed include “a rise in yoga studios, vegan fast food, and people visibly around the city on laptops.”

Rather than connecting with the locals, digital nomads more often form their own bubbles and hang out with fellow remote workers, Cook says. The Digital Nomads Madeira project on the Portuguese island of Madeira, launched in 2021, is one mixed-bag example they cite. Last year, journalist Susana Ferreira embedded herself in the island parish Ponta do Sol and reported for Wired that the surge in digital nomad arrivals had a mixed reception among locals, as rent fast outpaces wages and short-term spots are on the rise.

Cook says this speaks to one of the paradoxes at the heart of the digital nomad lifestyle: “Digital nomads talk quite a lot about the healing power of travel and immersing themselves in the local culture. I don't think it's for a cynical reason but it very rarely actually happens.”

Rather than connecting with the locals, digital nomads more often form their own bubbles and hang out with fellow nomads.

Andrea Edelman Kay

Can fading villages avoid over-nomadism?

It matters how involved locals are in designing programs aiming to attract digital nomads to their communities in the first place. Harvard’s Choudhury says: “How you foster a connection between locals and nomads will determine how the community benefits.”

This is where the new wave of projects in more rural areas hopes to chart a different course than what we've seen thus far. “Digital nomads have received a lot of backlash from big cities,” says Drejc Kokošar, co-founder of the ID20 Institute and one of the minds behind the Nomadland Project, “When we're talking about the countryside, it's a little bit different because we are talking here about the areas that are losing people.”

“The whole of Europe is talking about outmigration from the countryside, but nobody is really focused on how to attract new people,” says Kokošar. He believes when planned by locals, digital nomad projects can be a net positive—and maybe even save some villages from slipping off the map. That’s one reason KINO, which Nomadland promotes, aims to forge deeper relationships with residents.

Before launching KINO last year with her business partner, Andrea Mammoliti, Chironna spent several months in Madeira, which she described as “quite a bubble,” albeit successful in attracting a diverse crowd. She aimed to learn from those successes, while doing something unique in rural Italy where destinations can cater more specifically to digital nomads interested in visiting during a slower time of year. The kinds of digital nomad and remote workers drawn to an island getaway or an urban stay in, say, Lisbon, at high season, are quite distinct from those looking for a more rural village or small city experience, she reasons.

And in these destinations, Chironna hopes to show locals there’s an alternative to to mass tourism, even when presented under the guise of digital nomadism. “Remote workers can be a part of that alternative” by both creating opportunities for local businesses beyond short-term tourists and maybe even inspiring younger Italians to pick up the kind of remote jobs that enable them to return to the places they left, she says.

But the responsibility for managing these programs well needs to be shared by the remote workers, too. “I see my role as to encourage nomads to work and travel with a little more intention and kindness,” says Cook, who cites visiting more rural areas over the same crowded spots as an example of that intentionality. “Get involved with these conversations. Don't just presume that because you have a strong passport, that you can travel and work with impunity.”

In other words, if you are a digital nomad, target the villages where the pasta-making grandmas are actually looking for a dance. And with KINO, you might have a shot at that kind of engagement. When I chat with Chironna, she has a hoarse voice. “Last Saturday, we left a wine place at 4 a.m. We spent the night playing guitar and singing with locals,” she says. “Hence, probably, my condition."