Ways to woo digital vagabonds

Sunset Hill Resort in Koh Phangan offers both a coworking space and a total of 42 rooms to accommodate digital nomads and remote workers.

A new regime of working life outside of a traditional office environment has gained popularity amid the pandemic, giving rise to the digital nomad trend that allows people to combine work and travel with greater flexibility.

The 2021 State of Independence report by MBO Partners found that the number of digital nomads in the United States increased 42% year-on-year to 15.5 million, up 112% from 7.3 million recorded before the start of the pandemic in 2019. .

Eager to capture this growing segment, the Thai government last year approved new stimulus measures under a long-stay visa program, targeting four groups of wealthy foreigners and highly skilled professionals in the aim of reviving the economy.

Under this program, digital nomads were classified as professionals working from Thailand who were supposed to obtain privileges including work permits, tax breaks as well as limited ownership of land and property under the scheme. of the new 10-year visa.

However, more work needs to be done by both the government and tourism operators to improve the country’s competitiveness for digital nomads as the trend is expected to continue beyond the pandemic.

Ms Bruns says creating a sense of community for digital nomads is a higher priority than reasonable visa regulations.


Tourism opportunities

“Digital nomads and remote workers not only have high disposable income, but they are also travel-ready and unbothered by the uncertainties caused by the pandemic. This presents an opportunity for Thai tourism,” said the governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Yuthasak Supasorn. .

Mr Yuthasak said this group of travelers have longer stays in the country than tourists, averaging 3 to 9 months. Their spending may not exceed the level of leisure tourists, but it is helping to drive more revenue among local shops, restaurants and accommodations, he said.

According to the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s “Work and Wander: Meet Today’s Digital Nomads” report, the average monthly salary of US digital nomads was $4,500, of which 36% was spent on daily living expenses, including including accommodation, transportation and food.

He said the income of digital nomads from China – the biggest source market – remained relatively low compared to US digital nomads due to strict currency rules that make it difficult for citizens of that country to transact internationally.

The agency has been promoting Thailand as a destination for digital nomads in the United States under a campaign called “Amazing Thailand Unlimited” since the first quarter of 2021 and the program is expected to continue through the fourth quarter of this year. .

The campaign formed partnerships with digital service providers to generate special interest – inviting nomadic influencers to join the effort – and offered product updates to destinations in this segment, such as Surat Thani and Chiang Mai.

Mr. Assuied says the creation of coworking spaces and communities is what keeps digital nomads coming back, something that cannot be measured in numbers.


Legal setbacks

Despite government attempts to attract digital nomads, a major weakness remains the lack of regulatory infrastructure to support the lifestyle, forcing digital nomads to exist in a gray area when it comes to visas and taxes.

A gray market for visas has developed during the pandemic and although many foreigners prefer to follow the rules, several uncertainties remain and existing policies have not been well implemented, said Lily Bruns, an independent startup consultant based in Chiang Mai and Head of Partnerships at Plumia. , a community of global digital nomads who want to build an internet country.

Some digital nomads have paid 70,000 baht to get a Thai visa, but they could face problems if the authorities decide to control these visas, she said.

Ms Bruns urged the government to find a solution for digital nomads instead of categorizing them into initiatives aimed at affluent tourists, expats or start-up entrepreneurs, as not all nomads fall into one of these categories.

The recent 10-year visa offer does not represent the needs of digital nomads and shows a lack of understanding of their lifestyle as they need flexible short-term solutions with no commitment and as little paperwork as possible, he said. she declared.

Ms Bruns said the creation of a new type of visa which requires more time and effort could be implemented later, but the top priority is to simplify visa legislation to attract remote workers via tourism.

Coworking space meets the demand of digital nomads and remote workers at La Casa Tropicana in Koh Phangan.

Reinstating the six-month multiple-entry tourist visa that allows foreigners to apply to any Thai embassy without returning to their home country is crucial, she said.

Providing official statements from the Bureau of Immigration, Department of Labor and Department of Revenue would ensure that digital nomads would not be refused entry, nor would they be deported or penalized for working as long as their income is earned abroad.

“A simple visa policy will make the country more attractive as Thailand has been losing ground to Vietnam and Malaysia for years due to its poor reputation on issues such as visas and seasonal fog,” said Mrs Browns.

Attracting digital nomads, who are constantly on the move, should be a priority for Southeast Asia as a region, rather than countries competing with each other for this group, she said. .

Ms. Bruns acknowledged that it will be difficult to compete with Eastern Europe and Central America, which have grown in popularity as destinations for remote workers during the pandemic. Some nomads prefer to work in the same time zone as their employers.

Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, president of the Thai Hotels Association, said digital nomads are mainly from the long-haul market and want to visit many destinations in the region during their travels.

Establishing a common visa for combined trips to Thailand and neighboring countries would boost this segment in the region as it would facilitate border crossing for this group, Ms Marisa said.

Sense of community

In addition to a reasonable visa policy, a community capable of creating a co-working and co-living environment is seen as key to increasing the country’s popularity as a preferred destination.

“Places where the community gathers are so valuable, far more valuable even than visas, which is why we are still able to attract nomads to Thailand despite the legal gray areas,” Ms Bruns said.

Nomadic workers can connect with local startups and businesses through state agency initiatives to share knowledge about cryptocurrencies or cannabis markets and country differences, she said.

In order to grow the community, the government should support co-working and co-living because it has been affected by the pandemic, as well as help local operators develop services to meet the expectations of digital nomads, said Ms. Bruns.

Coworking spaces and communities are what draw people in and keep them coming back, which cannot be measured in numbers, said Elie Assuied, Founder and CEO of Remote&Digital.

The company operates three coworking spaces on Koh Phangan – La Casa Tropicana, Sunset Hill Resort and Signature Seafood and Grill – to serve digital nomads seeking a wellness-focused island escape from the big cities.

The occupancy of the cohabitation space of La Casa Tropicana was complete until the beginning of February.

However, many bookings have been canceled due to the suspension of the Test & Go program at the end of December and January.

Some tourists might gravitate to sandpit areas, but guest numbers have been hugely affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, he said.

Mr Assuied said the company needed to reassess its pricing strategy as it offered free access to shared workspace from May 2020 to March last year to mitigate the financial impact of a reduced number of guests.

Remote&Digital has also personalized its services by transforming rooms into private offices.

He said digital nomads represent an opportunity to quickly offset some of the losses from regular tourism, while a coworking space adds value to properties.

As for hoteliers, Marisa said hotels might not benefit much from digital nomads who normally opt for budget accommodation to save on costs.

Still, hotels remain one of the top choices for digital nomads when traveling to other provinces, she said.

Multinational companies or the corporate segment continue to look for hotel properties in Thailand that will allow their employees to work remotely, Ms Marisa said.

She said hoteliers looking to tap into this market need to adapt their business plan to meet demand, such as offering meeting rooms for virtual or hybrid events, video conferencing rooms, or investing in meeting spaces. coworking, which would depend on their budget. and brand positioning.

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