The concept of being a digital nomad isn’t new. Even during the latter years of the 20th Century, there were those who led a nomadic working lifestyle and identified as digital nomads but the way of life only really began to gain traction in the 2010’s with technological advancements and the rise of affordable short to mid-term accommodation options (most notably Airbnb), finally making the digital nomad dream a realistic one for more people.
Digital nomadism is no longer widely viewed as a fringe or alternative lifestyle, as might have been the case a decade ago. However it would be a stretch to say it has fully gone mainstream.
This probably isn’t the first article you have read proclaiming a new year to be the one where digital nomadism truly takes off for the masses. Similar predictions have been made in recent years, particularly in 2021, although the endless tide of Covid uncertainty, travel restrictions and complicated entry requirements, largely put pay to that.
It was a slightly different picture for those in very large countries with endless travel opportunities. Digital nomad numbers surged in the USA in 2021. A similar trend emerged over in China where millions swapped working from home for working from resorts and more scenic locations. However for digital nomads used to working and travelling overseas, it was another challenging year on the back of a very difficult 2020.
The Immediate Impact of the Pandemic on Digital Nomads
The immediate impact on digital nomads, as Covid-19 really started to spread rapidly in March 2020, was unsurprisingly negative. Many were faced with difficult decisions regarding whether to return to their homeland or remain abroad and potentially deal with the impending crisis, and any restrictions that might bring, in a foreign country without a permanent home.
For nationals of countries such as Australia, which have largely opted to tackle the pandemic by imposing strict border rules and in many cases lengthy outright international travel bans, that decision was all the more difficult. It was a case of come home and give up on the digital nomad dream or stay abroad and accept the reality that it might be a very long time before they were able to visit family and friends again. Many didn’t even get the luxury of a choice with their hands forced by quick-fire decisions to impose travel restrictions and lockdowns by governments across the world.
The experience of the first months of the pandemic was similar for digital nomads as it was for anyone else. Lockdowns and previously unthinkable restrictions on the freedoms we’ve become accustomed to became the norm. The freedom to travel where and whenever you fancied, so central to the very concept of digital nomadism, was clearly going to be out of the question for some time.
Digital Nomadism during Covid
There was one perk though that made adapting to the new world simpler for digital nomads than those used to fixed-location work or studies. There was no real transition period where nomads had to adapt to remote working as they were already doing that. Indeed for many digital nomads, their working habits haven’t really changed during the pandemic. However some have been hit harder than others by the new economic realities, particularly those with work related to or directly centred around travel, an industry which even as we near two years of living with Covid-19, continues to be decimated by it.
Some digital nomads attempted to return to their old lifestyles, either following the initial major wave in the first half of 2020 or following the vaccine roll-out which began to gather pace in early 2021. Even during peak periods, there have been countries willing to take in nomads and travellers, so it’s not as though it has been completely impossible to be a digital nomad in the past eighteen months.
However for those trying to travel and work remotely, it has still been something of a constant guessing game of trying to avoid major waves of Covid and the restrictions that come with it. Those that have continued to work and live abroad, have largely opted for longer stays in new countries than they might previously have done with a combination of entry restrictions, testing requirements and quarantines making the prospect of regularly entering a new country considerably less hassle-free. 2021 was also a year when many countries introduced digital nomad visas, making it easier for people to go to a new country and base themselves there for a longer period than was previously possible.
For most pre-2020 digital nomads though, the pandemic has resulted in them returning home and spending more time in their own country with perhaps the odd trip abroad if and when the Covid situation allowed. Aside from the ethical argument that a lifestyle of continuous travel wasn’t exactly the most responsible way to respond to a global pandemic, being based in one country has made life simpler when it has come to getting vaccinated and having access to healthcare for those concerned about health conditions that made them more vulnerable to the worst of the virus itself.
Will 2022 be the year the Digital Nomad Lifestyle goes mainstream?
2021 turned out much like 2020 for travel with countries across the world reporting massively reduced visitor numbers than was the norm prior to 2020. Most major international airports have experienced drops of between 50% and 75% in their passenger figures during the pandemic and the first major shift we need to see before international digital nomadism can truly take off again, is a clear change in approach from governments across the world when it comes to shunning travel restrictions and adopting more of a “live with it” approach to Covid-19 moving forward.
The early signs for 2022 were not positive with fear surrounding the new, highly transmissible, Omicron variant taking hold and resulting in the reintroduction of travel restrictions and in some cases lockdowns across Europe, despite high vaccination rates. However, as fears have eased about the severity of Omicron and the reality has dawned that vaccinations alone aren’t going to end the pandemic, for perhaps the first time, the conversation does now seem to be shifting towards how to live with Covid as opposed to merely how to restrict it.
As one of the first regions to be hit by Omicron, Europe will most likely pass its peak in the coming weeks. How it reacts after that may well set the tone for 2022. An EU-wide commitment, potentially mirrored by non-EU nations, to lifting almost all Covid-related border restrictions and a return towards pre-2020 entry requirements, would be a clear positive sign and one that would make an international digital nomad lifestyle start to seem very possible and practical again.
That could potentially spark a very exciting period for digital nomadism. This is now a world where hundreds of millions of people are working remotely and have developed the skills and experience to do so over the past two years. The notion that you need an office and a fixed location to do most jobs has been emphatically erased by the pandemic, and a massive rise in remote working will be one of the clearest legacies of the strange times we have all been living through.
Whether that will translate into a massive rise in those choosing a digital nomad lifestyle is a far more interesting and debatable question. For many people, the reality that it is basically possible to do their jobs entirely from a remote location will have been a pleasant discovery and logic dictates that should perk interest in more people seeking to travel and work remotely moving forwards. Early evidence from North America and China appears to back that up.
Another factor is that people have simply been starved of travel opportunities for nearly two years and have had to put off many planned foreign adventures. Many would surely jump at the chance of continuing to do their regular work and earning the same income whilst doing plenty more travelling in 2022. Their employers though, even those happy for work-from-home to continue, might have other ideas about their employees jetting off on one-way tickets to other parts of the world!
With the economic uncertainty set to continue, 2022 is unlikely to be the year when millions quit their jobs and take the plunge into becoming full-time globe-trotting digital nomads. The pandemic may have to be firmly in the rear view mirror for that to take place and we may still be years away from that.
However 2022 may very well be the year when digital nomads from before the pandemic are confident enough to return to their old lifestyle and when many freelancers/self-employed people with a passion for travel make the plunge and head down the digital nomad path.
The year may also see people who are working mostly from home in their regular jobs dip their feet in the digital nomad lifestyle for the first time. That may take a bit of negotiating with bosses but people extending their trips and holidays away by working remotely for a few extra days could be one trend to look out for. There’s no reason why that should really be a problem for most companies providing plans are properly made and trips are timed around any commitments that do require a fixed location.
Temporary Adoption or the Start of a Long-Term Shift?
There is an argument to be made that 2022 may just prove something of a sweet spot for working would-be digital nomads where travel becomes much easier and where many companies are still holding off on insisting on a return to fixed location work.
The consensus seems to be that employers and employees may ultimately agree on a return to some kind of hybrid system where office-based work is mixed with working from home. While there may be some companies that do decide to go fully remote, in most cases it’s likely still going to be impossible for people to keep their current jobs whilst becoming a full-time digital nomad.
Digital nomadism may not be on the cusp of taking over the world in the very immediate future, but it seems pretty obvious by this point, that it is going to grow more and more popular in the 2020’s in a world that has been somewhat prematurely forced into working remotely for so long.
Analysis of the search term “digital nomad” on Google Trends helps demonstrate how interest in the subject has steadily grown over the past five years and continued to do so despite the massive travel implications brought by Covid-19. There are also a couple of notable spikes in the summer of 2021, when hopes were perhaps higher that the pandemic was nearing its conclusion.
The rise of remote working, the ever growing list of countries offering digital nomad visas and eventually the easing of travel restrictions, should ultimately create the perfect environment for digital nomadism to flourish and we can expect the number of people who identify as a digital nomad to skyrocket when that does happen.
Just how quickly that takes place, will largely depend on how quickly Covid-19 is brought under control or at least how soon countries decide to treat it as an endemic rather than a pandemic. It could happen in 2022 but in truth you’d need a crystal ball to determine exactly how and when that will play out.
What seems more certain though, is that whenever Covid’s impact on the world truly does start to wane, the result in time will be a fresh wave of digital nomads and we may soon be moving into an exciting era where it will be easier to work and travel than ever before.