Mon | Dec 6, 2021

The Caribbean goes nomad

Region woos COVID-weary foreigners to work from paradise

Published:Sunday | November 7, 2021 | 12:11 AM

Six years ago, Ronald Ndoro Mind felt the urge to combine work and travel in a manner few in these parts had contemplated. With his businesses doing well, the idea of leaving behind the “dreary, cold and dark-by-4 p.m. winter” in England and working remotely seemed enticing.

“It is the desire to travel while still being able to be productive and work that was key,” Mind told The Sunday Gleaner.

At first, he did it in patches, stated the businessman, who has established, run and successfully exited many enterprising ventures across the globe.

In 2019, shortly before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mind decided to work remotely from Antigua to much excitement mixed with trepidation from colleagues and friends.

“It is always that fear of the unknown and that adjustment people need to make when they realise you are no longer going to be just around the corner to play whatever role you normally play in their lives,” he explained.

DECISION TO STAY INDEFINITELY

He intended to spend “a couple of months at a time” in St John’s, but the pandemic changed everything. Having had a feel for working remotely in the Caribbean, he now intends to stay indefinitely to enjoy the outdoors and a laid-back life year-round while scheduling his workday to coincide with the busy business hours in London.

“My day is far more concentrated but also leaves me with time to do extracurricular fun stuff with the family,” said Mind, who is also an entrepreneur in residence at London South Bank University, where he mentors, lectures and run workshops with students. “It just feels like I have more time for everything. Not having to commute also helps. The most obvious attraction is the year-long sunshine and the many benefits that brings.”

Like Mind, Jan Mintowt, a partner in a financial services firm in the UK, has relocated to Antigua, but still works in London.

Two and a half years ago, Mintowt and his Barbados-born wife chose Antigua as the preferred Caribbean destination to raise their two young daughters. Among the qualifying factors was the ease with which he could fly back to England to work for parts of the year, worried his colleagues would believe that he was spending his time in the Caribbean on holiday.

“As soon as you mention the Caribbean, everybody thinks you’re on the beach with a cocktail all day long, or on a yacht or having that sort of holiday lifestyle,” Mintowt told The Sunday Gleaner. “Of course, you’re not having a holiday lifestyle. You’re doing the same thing you do anywhere else in the world.”

However, it’s the holiday lifestyle that some Caribbean countries are promoting to lure COVID-19-weary workers to their shores.

“Are you fed up with wave after wave of lockdown, continual uncertainty, and staring at the same four walls every day?” asks Dominica on its Work in Nature website, which contains a video of carnival, dancing, food, and lots of idyllic nature scenes. “We get you. That’s why we have created a Work In Nature (WIN) Extended Stay Visa – so that you and your family can come to the Nature Island of the Caribbean and live and work here for a while instead.”

LURING ADS

Anguilla’s ‘Lose the Crowd, Find Yourself. Work. Life. Bliss’ website shows a man with a laptop sitting on a deck just inches from beautiful white sand and turquoise waters, similar to a picture on Aruba’s ‘One Happy Workation’ website, where a barefooted man in shorts, shirt and tie sits at a desk under a thatched umbrella surrounded by the beach and crystal-clear Caribbean waters.

COVID-19 made many employers and employees realise that it was possible to be productive while working away from the office. And even as businesses began to slowly reopen, a small but growing number of people are choosing to become digital nomads – remote workers who travel the world.

According to MBO Partners, a business management software company in Virginia, USA, which specialises in digital nomadism, the number of digital nomads in the United States alone reached 15.5 million this year, a phenomenal 112 per cent rise when compared to the 7.3 million in 2019, and 42 per cent higher than the 10.9 million in 2020.

“Digital nomadism is a viable tourism niche for Caribbean nations,” McLean Robbins, vice-president of enterprise marketing at MBO Partners, told The Sunday Gleaner. “Nomads seek locations that offer new experiences, as well as those conducive and suitable to living and working for extended periods of time. Caribbean nations, with their easy access from the United States, relatively low cost of living, and attractive climate and scenery are all uniquely positioned to capitalise on this trend.”

Barbados was the first Caribbean destination to jump head first into the digital nomadism pool in August 2020 with the launch of a 12-month Welcome Stamp visa programme. In the months that followed, Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Curaçao, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Montserrat, and Puerto Rico launched similar programmes, with Grenada about to test the waters. Most of these visas come with substantial fees and proof of income or a healthy bank account.

The economic impact of these remote work programmes is not yet known, but tourism officials and policymakers insist the digital nomads have breathed new life into an industry left on a ventilator and gasping for breath by COVID-19.

Aruba has reported that about 13,700 visitors have arrived there for “workations” since last September. Bermuda said it has received about 1,000 applications since last August. And Barbados said its Welcome Stamp visa has attracted almost 5,000 new visitors since last June, more than 3,000 of whom went with their spouses and 1,100 with their dependents.

“We have been able successfully to compensate for the loss in short-term travel by brining instead long-term visitors who are staying with us for a year of more,” said Lisa Cummins, Barbados’ tourism minister, at a recent media briefing organised by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

However, not everyone is convinced that digital nomadism is the way to revive tourism in the Caribbean, particularly as the world has moved away from lockdowns.

Edmund Bartlett, Jamaica’s tourism minister, believes the emphasis must instead continue to be on the sort of tourist who drives hard economic outcomes, while digital nomadism can be an add-on, where possible.

“We have no difficulty in having digital nomads coming into our space. What we wouldn’t be doing would be driving that as a demographic of choice in the context of the thrust to have full recovery of our industry at this time,” Bartlett told The Sunday Gleaner.

Of particular concern to the minister is whether the Caribbean has the required infrastructure – most importantly, high-quality and reliable Internet connectivity – to satisfy the digital nomads, who are largely professional, highly skilled, educated, and often highly compensated workers.

Of the digital nomads surveyed by MBO Partners this year, 19 per cent work in IT – seven per cent higher than in 2020 and more than any other profession – while 77 per cent reported that they use technology to make themselves more competitive in their work, versus 41 per cent of those who are not digital nomads.

SPEEDTEST RANKING

Yet, of the 181 countries listed on the Speedtest global index for September 2021, only Barbados, with an average download speed of 109.41Mbps of fixed broadband (ranked 43rd in the world), met the minimum speed of 100 Mbps needed for effective remote work. Jamaica, with an average daily speed of 37.84 Mbps, was ranked at 102.

“If you do not have good Internet connection, if you do not have good facilities, if you’ve not got the range of requirements, then it is going to do damage to your reputation, and you shouldn’t be doing it,” warned Dimitrios Buhalis, a tourism professor at Bournemouth University in the UK.

“The worst thing that can happen is that you promise something that you cannot deliver,” argued the professor. “And we’ve seen this in tourism a lot.”

It’s a lesson that Barbados learnt the hard way after Andrea Lo, a freelance journalist and digital nomad from Hong Kong, experienced a massive culture shock when she moved to Bridgetown on the extended-stay visa.

Having faced frequent incidents of harassment that left her filled with anxiety, Lo left the island after just four and a half months and published her story.

“None of the research I did prior to my relocation indicated what I would experience,” she wrote. “So much of what happened was completely unexpected. Perhaps the best advice I can give, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

Lo’s story rattled tourism officials in Barbados and sent them scrambling to deal with the potential fallout. And although there was no evidence that the work stamp programme was mortally wounded by it, Carlos Munoz, Airbnb’s director of public policies, stressed the importance of complete transparency.

“As far as digital nomads go, I think it’s important for destinations in their marketing that they are very transparent about what is available and what isn’t to the tourists or the visitor so that expectation can be met realistically upon arrival,” Munoz told The Sunday Gleaner.

editorial@gleanerjm.com