Digital nomads are here to save Spain’s ghost towns

How to save a dying village? For the small community of Oliete in the mountainous region of Teruel in eastern Spain, the answer was olive oil. In May 2014, the local community launched ApadrinaUnOlivo.org – adopt an olive tree, in Spanish – to allow anyone in the world to sponsor an abandoned tree for € 50. The money collected was used to finance an NGO which created thirteen jobs for the inhabitants of the village. In return, the sponsors receive two liters of olive oil per year and hopefully forge a bond with the village.

To date, some 7,000 people have sponsored a tree, and many have come to learn more about life in Oliete. Newcomers to the village have even avoided closing the school, increasing the number of students from four at the start of the project to 13 today. But with a population of only 343, Oliete is still in terminal decline.

In 1910, the village was home to 2,533 inhabitants and had two cinemas and two dance halls. Now all is calm. But that could be about to change. Oliete, like 30 other dying villages across Spain, has joined the National Network of Welcoming Villages for Remote Workers, or Red Nacional de Pueblos Acogedores para el Teletrabajo, which aims to attract foreign workers with a new work visa. 12 months for digital nomads.

Spain’s startup bill, which was passed by the cabinet in July but has yet to receive parliamentary approval, aims to encourage digital nomads to repopulate rural villages. Among Spain’s 8,131 municipalities, 3,403 are classified as threatened with extinction, according to the country’s National Statistics Institute. The digital nomad visa will be available from Spanish consulates around the world for workers outside the European Union. And, once a person lives and works in Spain, they can apply for a residence permit to extend their stay for two years, which can then be renewed for another two years.

Like other countries that have introduced nomadic visas, Spain wants to attract foreign workers with tax incentives. They can pay the Spanish non-resident tax rate of 24% on income up to € 600,000. In comparison, Spanish residential tax rates vary, but can reach 45% for higher incomes. It may still be amended, but the Startup Act has been met with support from most of Spain’s major political parties who see it as a way to help what’s called España Vaciada – or Empty Spain.

And villages like Oliete need all the help they can get. It is an agricultural country, where people live off the land and raise sheep and pigs. Sun, sea and sand this is not the case. But it just might be the draw for all digital nomads looking for tranquility, a chance to get closer to nature and maybe find the “real Spain” whatever it is. Nestled in the Rio Martin Cultural Park, hikers come to see griffon vultures, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

Social life revolves around the Las Piscinas bar, one of the three in the village. Seasonal workers come and go at the end of summer. Alberto Alfonso, one of the founders of ApadrinaUnOlivo.org, is also involved in preparing the village for the early arrival of nomads who might be tired of city life. In the coming weeks, a vacant three-storey building in the village will be transformed into a coworking and co-living space with funding of € 800,000. This funding is part of Wake Up Intelligent Villages, a program that encourages nomads to come to Oliete by creating new commercial infrastructure.

“What they might discover here is a life where they can see where the eggs of free-range hens come from or how we make olive oil,” says Alfonso, a telecommunications worker from 44 years old who lives in Oliete. “But there will also be a place where they can work and mingle with others for as long as they want to stay.” Carlos Blanco, 39, a father of four, who works in a warehouse taking orders for the olive oil project, moved to the village of Barcelona four years ago. “My aquarium business ended because Catalonia declared itself independent in 2017 and all my orders from Spain were canceled. We decided to come and live here. It’s much quieter, there’s a better quality of life and it’s better for the children, ”he says.

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