In the age of COVID–19, more and more Americans have swapped in–person work for virtual, raising the question: Why stay holed up at home when you could do your job from exotic spots like Bali, Cabo, and Tulum?
This logic has paved the way for the rise of the digital nomad, a seemingly average person who travels while on the job, taking advantage of the mobility that telework provides. These digital nomads aren’t just mixing work and play; they’re also chronicling their journeys on social media.
You’ve probably seen these digital nomads while scrolling through your Instagram feed. With a one–way ticket out of America in one hand and their MacBook in the other, digital nomads curate enviable social media feeds that make you want to live their easygoing lifestyles.
However, the concept of the digital nomad is much less ethical than these influencers' online presences might make it seem.
First of all, these nomads often take very little interest in the local communities and practices that surround them. They're mostly worried about how their adventures will look on their feeds. Instead of traveling to different work locations to experience new cultures, digital nomads often go to tropical places and still experience what work is like in America, with its air–conditioned workspaces and plenty of smoothie bowls. Then they deem local practices as “inferior” to those they're familiar with.
The influx of these travelers, who demand restaurants, offices, and shops that they feel comfortable with (i.e., that are westernized), has created a wave of transnational gentrification. Under this model, local populations are exploited for their labor while their communities are destroyed. For example, in Canggu, a surfing hub in Bali, rice fields are now being replaced with cheap bars, hotels, and nightclubs to attract more foreigners.
These patterns of exploitation aren’t new—they’re reminiscent of how western countries have used the concepts of white supremacy and western modernity to “industrialize” and colonize non–western nations.
Not only do digital nomads gentrify and perpetuate myths of western supremacy, but they also encourage others to do the same—treating the Global South as an escape from the daily grind. In an infamous Twitter thread, a user moved to Bali to “elevate” her lifestyle, calling it a “perfect medicine” and telling others on Twitter to also move to get away from American work culture.
However, while foreigners might see Bali as a place to live a more luxurious life, tens of thousands of locals live in poverty, with numbers increasing dramatically after COVID–19 destroyed the tourism industry.
Relocating to places like Tulum to work while vacationing parallels age–old American patterns of imperialism. People not indigenous to an area disturb local ways of life, spread COVID–19 in places that don’t have easy access to vaccines, and overwhelm community resources. Digital nomads themselves often argue that they’re boosting these tropical economies and say that they’re the “future of remote life,” but local leaders are constantly telling people to stop the travel boom.
While it's true that tourism and digital nomads can support local economies, it’s also important to recognize that tourism as an industry is inherently unsustainable. As destinations become more and more popular, tourists can sap a location’s resources until it becomes unappealing to those who want to use it as a vacation spot, making it no longer “trendy.” Once this happens, locals are left with higher prices and fewer resources, and their way of life is drastically different.
Many digital nomads need to learn that the Global South is not a playground. While these travelers have the privilege of being able to pack up and leave once they’re tired of a destination, the locals who serve them cheap drinks and açaí bowls have to live with the consequences of their takeover.