LABIN, Croatia: Melissa Paul described it as a ‘nice gift’ when she became Croatia’s first official digital nomad earlier this year, benefiting from a visa regime which the country hopes will help promote its travel industry affected by the pandemic.
“Croatia is beautiful, life is beautiful here, affordable compared to other places, has a pleasant climate, good internet access,” says the American marketing consultant, who lives in the cobbled streets of Labin , a hilltop town overlooking the Adriatic.
Paul got his visa in January, joining a global army of workers plying their trade in foreign countries since the pandemic ushered in an era of working from home for millions of people.
Croatia offers special visas to digital workers outside the European Union, allowing them to stay for up to a year and exempting them from income tax.
Applicants must prove that they work remotely, have housing and health insurance, and earn at least â¬ 2,200 (US $ 2,700) per month.
Paul is among over 100 people who have applied since the program launched in January, more than half of whom are Americans and Brits.
The government has so far approved 33 visas and ministers are hoping the idea will take off once travel restrictions linked to the virus are lifted.
Tourism accounts for around a fifth of the economy of this EU country of 4.2 million people, but the number of visitors has increased from 21 million in 2019 to seven million last year.
Revenue fell by more than half to 4.8 billion euros in 2020 compared to the previous year.
The crisis has particularly affected southern regions such as Dubrovnik, where visitors mainly arrive by plane.
With the decline in tourism, the time had come for a new idea, and Croatia-based Dutch entrepreneur Jan de Jong was on hand to deliver it.
He used social media last year to call on Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic to introduce the visas – and six months later they have become reality.
âCroatia as a whole, especially in the combination of things, offers a very unique experience,â said De Jong, highlighting the landscape, the connections with the rest of Europe and the Mediterranean lifestyle.
But to be successful with digital nomads, he said, Croatia needed to act quickly and be competitive.
It already had rivals in Europe – Estonia launched its nomadic visa program last year and countries like the Czech Republic and Iceland have similar permits.
Further afield, Antigua is trying its luck and the Indonesian island of Bali has already become a major hub.
Business groups believe the idea will take off in many other countries.
The Tourism Ministry, which backs De Jong’s idea, sees it as a long-term opportunity to boost the industry rather than a quick fix to the pandemic crisis.
The ministry told AFP that digital workers could become Croatia’s best promoters, spreading the word to their peers.
“TAKE YOUR LIFE”
Among the first users happy to promote the benefits of Croatia is content creator Steve Tsentserensky, who arrived in the country after years of globetrotting.
Originally from the United States, he has traveled to New Zealand, Ukraine, France and Italy and worked on cruise ships.
But he fell in love with the Croatian ârhythm of lifeâ.
âIt’s not like everyone is rushing,â he says. “You are working and you can also enjoy your life.”
For Melissa Paul, the visa was her last option. She had lived in Croatia since 2014 and was married to a Croatian, but the divorce left her with no legal way to stay.
âIt has kept me where I love to live,â she says.
But Paul also points out that outsiders will bring expertise and knowledge that could help the community at large.
This idea is what drives entrepreneur De Jong, who hopes the influence of foreign digital workers could help young Croats, many of whom want to leave their countries.
“They would bring their mindset and experience and can really have a positive impact on the mindset, mainly of the younger generation,” said the Dutchman, father of four.