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The Age of the ‘Digital Nomads’ is Here! Is the Caribbean Ready?

Published on June 25, 2019


 Ron Johnson 

'Bhranding' specialist, writer & speaker (Co-founder, Blueprint Creative)

Jake* looks at his watch. It’s 4 pm on the dot. Time for him to finish work for the day. He saves his file, emails it to his boss and puts his laptop on sleep mode. He’s met the deadline he’d been assigned with two hours to spare! It’s time to celebrate! He takes off his shirt, puts on some sunscreen, walks across the warm sand and jumps into the crystal-clear water. Jake’s ‘office’, at least for the time being, is a beach in Bali, Indonesia where he has been living and working for the past four months. His ‘boss’, Sara, who works in New York, doesn’t care where he works from, once he continues to produce quality work and meets his deadlines. And, so far, Jake has been doing just that.

Jake is a ‘digital nomad’ – a term coined to describe the growing number of professionals who work remotely from different locations and countries and, sometimes, for different employers. Jake has never met his boss or co-workers in person. He communicates with them via email, and apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, GoToMeeting and Slack. In the past two years, he has worked from beaches, cafes, and co-working spaces in six different countries on two different continents. Jake is one of a growing tribe of workers who have ditched the traditional nine-to-five work, to enjoy the freedom of choosing their own jobs, visiting exotic locations, immersing themselves in new cultures and meeting new people. “It’s a tough job,” he jokes, “but somebody’s gotta do it.”

The digital nomad work approach[RH1]  is the focus of research by consultant Dr. Rochelle Haynes, Barbadian-born, a UK-trained HR professional who is also currently a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England. Haynes is a leading specialist in future workforce trends and has consulted and given guest lectures across Europe and Asia, on the topic of how firms can best adapt their organisational processes to take advantage of changing work trends, while simultaneously addressing the needs of a new generation of workers. “By 2020, it Is projected that forty percent of the US workforce will be made up of off-site workers,” she notes. “Yet, traditional HR practices and organisational services remain focused on full-time staff and customers. This can be problematic for companies seeking to engage digital nomads and migrant professionals with whom they may never meet in person.”

Employment trend reports by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and data from leading consulting firms like PwC and Deloitte suggest that it would be in the best interest of companies, no matter where they are located, to prepare for the growth of this ‘invisible workforce’ – especially with some observers estimating that, by 2035, there will be over one billion digital nomads in the global workforce.

This trend towards offsite workers could potentially mean big business for countries who are highly favoured by digital nomads. According to an article published on the WyseTravel website, “Digital nomads are becoming important to some destinations as a new type of visitor. Not only do digital nomads represent value for local communities through consumption of good and services, they should be considered important for the social currency they wield as travel and lifestyle influencers.”

In other words, popular digital nomad destinations around the world (such as Bali and Thailand) are benefiting economically because of these workers, as their governments and the private sector provide services to accommodate the nomadic lifestyle. Some countries, such as Thailand  have even begun giving special short-term work visas to make it easier for nomadic workers to enter, and work in, their business communities. As a result, nomads are happy to travel with their laptops in tow, spending their salaries in these satellite locations rather than in their home countries. But while countries all over the world are benefiting economically from the spending power of digital nomads, enticing these digital nomads to visit, work and ultimately spend their money in these locations can be hard work and is not without its challenges.

According to Haynes, who travelled to Bali last November to meet nomads and explore their lifestyle, digital nomads can be quite picky about where they choose to visit, and several factors can influence their decisions. “Just because a country has a strong brand as a tourism destination,” she notes, “it doesn’t mean that it automatically has a strong brand as a digital nomad destination.” To illustrate her point, she notes that, while access to high-speed Internet may be a ‘nice to have’ for leisure tourists planning to spend their vacations sightseeing or laying on the beach, it is an absolute necessity for digital nomads. She adds that several other factors can also influence digital nomads’ choice of where to visit and work.

The website is a popular website used by nomads to evaluate destinations all over the world for their suitability for the digital nomad lifestyle. NomadList scores destinations on several factors such as safety, healthcare, nightlife, freedom of speech, cost, weather, fun and, of course, the quality of Internet access. According to NomadList, the top five digital nomad cities are Bali (Indonesia), Chiang Mai (Thailand), Buenos Aires (Argentina), Budapest (Hungary) and Bangkok (Thailand). Out of a maximum possible ‘Nomad Score’ of 5.0, these cities score 5.0, 4.75, 4.73, 4.68 and 4.61 respectively on NomadList’s rankings. By comparison, NomadList gave Kingston (Jamaica), Port of Spain (Trinidad & Tobago) and Bridgetown (Barbados) Nomad Scores of 3.1, 2.7 and 1.2 respectively.

Clearly, if the Caribbean wants to compete in the digital nomad space, it has some serious catching up to do. However, Haynes, who will be heading to explore Chiang Mai and Bangkok as nomad destinations this August, believes that the Caribbean region can benefit tremendously from the digital nomad economy despite its current lagging scores. She notes, though, that improving the Caribbean’s reputation as a digital nomad haven won’t come about by chance. She believes that Caribbean territories that want to compete for the attention of digital nomads must develop a long-term, comprehensive and coordinated plan that seeks to improve on the factors that are valued by digital nomads. This plan, she says, must incorporate both public and private sector participation in order for it to succeed.

“When you take a look at sites like NomadList and take note of the factors that digital nomads value,” she notes, “it becomes immediately clear that, for Caribbean territories to entice digital nomads, these countries’ public and private sectors must work hand in hand. Ultimately, the Caribbean territories that will be successful in this emerging economy will be the ones who take a more holistic approach to destination branding and focus not only on classic tourism attractions, such as sun, sea and sand, but also on other high-value areas that digital nomads value.”

 Ron Johnson is a prolific writer and has written more than 70 articles. Check out his LinkedIn profile for more of his work.

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