Thailand and Bali race for Southeast Asia’s 1st digital nomad visa

PHOTO: Earning high foreign salaries in cheap tropical locations? Yes please!

The popularity of the digital nomad lifestyle has been skyrocketing and with Covid-19 teaching many businesses that telecommuting works, it will only increase. Now, Thailand and Indonesia are in a slow-motion race to lure these lucrative travellers with the first digital nomad visa in Southeast Asia. Currently, many people work online from their beach houses and tropical Villas on Thai islands and in Bali – in fact, the islands are among the most popular destinations for digital nomads – except the vast majority are technically working illegally.

Notwithstanding the challenges of travel during the Covid-era, the digital nomad is the biggest workplace transformation in motion at the moment.

A digital nomad is someone that works remotely from anywhere in the world with an internet connection, untethered by a desk in an office and free to roam around the world. Freelancers often relocate from their expensive home country economies to countries that offer cheap subsistence, thus reaping the best of both worlds – their country’s high salary and their host country’s low cost of living.

It’s been called the most lucrative and fastest-growing migrant worker trend of the digital era by Nikkei Asia. Unlike the past when travellers and backpackers could score local gigs in low paying jobs like farming or bartending, digital nomads earn strong salaries allowing them to live abroad nearly endlessly with more disposable income than the average backpacker.

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Most digital nomads flock to Asia on visa waivers or tourist visas which generally do not allow any type of work. But last month Indonesian Tourist Minister Sandiaga Uno spoke kindly of a long-term Visa that allowed work, clearing a path for legalizing the digital nomad lifestyle.

The tourism minister came around to the idea when he himself became a digital nomad, taking holidays from his office in Jakarta to work from Bali and rejuvenate. But the current laws forbid foreigners from enjoying Bali in the same way. There are 57 foreign monitoring teams that are searching for digital nomads and busting them for violating Visa restrictions.

In Thailand, on the other hand, the Centre For Covid-19 Situation Administration approved a plan to give up to a 4 year visa to digital nomads and allow them to work legally. The scheme falls under the current Smart Visa program created to attract experts in science and tech fields as well as foreign money investors for things like real estate and startup companies.

The idea was to attract the best and the brightest in emerging fields and technologies to live and work in Thailand. But authorities have been stingy handing out the Smart Visas, with only 625 issued over the last 3 years. Still, the construct of the visa would be a perfect launching point to reimagine into an option for digital nomads, bursting the floodgates and allowing these desirable tourists to live and work legally in Thailand.

This alluring tourist demographic of a traveller who can afford to spend money in the local economy for long periods of time is drawing pandering attention from many countries. Barbados, Dubai, and Estonia have visa offerings to allow digital nomads to work there legally. But Asia has not caught on to the trend yet, with freelance online work generally being illegal. Until Thailand or Indonesia or both enact these plans they’ve been kicking around, digital nomad work doesn’t qualify for a work visa and doing any form of labour without the proper visa is forbidden.

While both Thailand and Indonesia are slowly coming around to the idea and opportunity of welcoming digital nomads legally in their countries, no concrete policy or time frame have been announced or approved and either country. It remains to be seen who will win the race for Southeast Asia’s first digital nomad Mecca.

Watch our video about the challenges of digital nomads HERE.

SOURCE: South China Morning Post

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Neill Fronde

Neill is a journalist from the United States with 10+ years broadcasting experience and national news and magazine publications. He graduated with a degree in journalism and communications from the University of California and has been living in Thailand since 2014.

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