Travel after COVID: Impact on remote work & digital nomads
The pandemic saw the travel industry take a heavy beating, with international arrivals dropping to a 40-year low and the global tourism industry losing a staggering USD 4.5 trillion in GDP. However, as countries reopened their borders, people jumped at the chance to travel overseas, and many adopted the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle – being able to work remotely from different locations around the world. This article takes a look at post-COVID travel and explore its impact on remote work and digital nomads.
Travel restarts again
Every country had its own unique set of challenges during the pandemic. However, there was a common trend across the board between rising COVID cases and travel numbers – where, as COVID cases increased, borders closed, lockdowns were enforced, and travel shut down.
After putting health precautions in place such as wearing masks, social distancing and vaccinations, countries gradually made it through the pandemic. The exact restart dates vary by country, however most reopened their borders by the latter half of 2021. Whilst travel didn’t reach the levels of 2019, it made a substantial recovery.
As borders opened, people jumped on the opportunity to travel again. Sudden spikes of activity were driven by positive news regarding vaccine rollouts or restrictions easing.
Countries that deemed affordable, clean, and offering opportunities for those wanting to work remotely, were popular destinations for travelers.
Top 3 destinations
UAE – Dubai
Dubai became an extremely popular destination for travellers. With various attractions, luxurious hotels and being a prime shopping destination, it’s no surprise that it was the most visited city in the world in 2022.
After a long period of restrictions, it began to see an increase in arrivals of high-net-worth individuals such as entrepreneurs and investors wanting to work remotely. A report from Henley and Partners showed that the UAE is set to attract the highest number of millionaires worldwide, in 2022.
The introduction of freelance and remote work visas in 2021 has further boosted Dubai’s popularity among digital nomads.
UK - London
The UK has always been a major hotspot for international travellers. When restrictions lifted, London saw an increase in arrivals, as people deemed it as an extremely safe and reliable place to visit.
The UK also offered opportunities for people wanting to move for work, in skilled jobs such as finance and technology. This attracted high volumes of people from countries such as the United States (US) and the Asia-Pacific region. The UK Working Visa became extremely appealing for people wanting to travel – they could experience working life in the UK and travel throughout many countries in Europe, which had successfully come out of COVID.
Mexico – Cancun
Mexico’s extremely relaxed policies regarding COVID made it a convenient option for tourists desperately wanting to get away. Cheap Airbnb locations, fast Wi-Fi and high-quality co-working spaces were huge incentives for digital nomads looking to work abroad.
With a weak exchange rate, the cost of living became extremely cheap for foreigners from developed countries such as the US. As travel became more affordable, tourists could now stay for prolonged periods without loosening their purse strings.
How has travel changed post-COVID?
Travel saw a few changes as well, in comparison to the pre-pandemic days. The increase in remote work meant that preferences changed in terms of how people travel.
Tight restrictions on travel meant that people felt they were overdue a well-earned vacation. When borders re-opened, there was expectedly a massive surge in demand. The pandemic gave people a renewed perspective on work-life balance, as well as the importance of travel.
A major trend showed that people were keen to spend more than at pre-pandemic levels. The restrictions and extended lockdown periods meant that people had also accumulated savings that would have otherwise gone towards leisurely activities – effectively meaning they now had extra income to splurge on their trips. In a 2022 American Express survey, 72% of respondents said they would be likely to spend more on both domestic and international travel.
Extended periods of isolation and lockdown enforcements raised the importance of mental health. People’s views on travel changed, as they recognised that travel could bring much deeper benefits than some time off work.
Reconnecting with loved ones, building meaningful relationships, and experiencing new cultures became paramount to people wanting to travel. Travellers also showed they had become more sentimental – an American Express survey in 2022 showed that people were more likely to prioritise trips to either see family and friends, or to visit places with unique cultural experiences, rather than spend purely on luxurious destinations.
As travel opened up again, TripAdvisor statistics showed that people were quick to jump on any hot deals on offer and were more willing to take time off to go to their desired destinations. Statista’s 2022 Global Consumer Survey showed that as travel resumed, people became much more spontaneous when it came to booking their overseas trips, compared to pre-pandemic times.
Data also showed people were more flexible with their travel plans. Kayak, a US travel search engine, showed a 50% increase in people booking flights within a 7-day period in 2021 (in comparison to 2019), which indicated how keen people were to travel and that they did not mind doing so on a whim.
The increase in remote work meant that working abroad was no longer something reserved for the corporate elite – it was now open to a whole new demographic of people who could work independently and travel from location to location.
This impacted people’s attitudes towards travel, and what they looked for when finding an ideal destination.
Weather has become an extremely key factor for travellers. As many people endured extended periods of isolation whilst under lockdown, tropical locations with plenty of sun and large outdoor spaces are now hugely in demand. CEO Magazine stated that tropical locations such as Portugal, Greece and Thailand have become extremely popular for digital nomads in 2021.
A surge in remote work has meant that a good internet connection is now a necessity. Whether it’s just being able to work more flexibly, or connect with others from across the globe, Wi-Fi is now paramount for travellers in a post-COVID world.
Travellers also greatly value social interactions on their trips and prefer to go to places that promote a sense of community. An ‘Anywhere Workers’ study in 2022 showed 33% of digital nomads stated a lack of social contact as one of the main issues with the digital nomad lifestyle. As a result, destinations which offer ways for travellers to connect such as co-working spaces, digital nomad villages with community living options, and local meetups, have become extremely popular.
Safety and cleanliness
Post-COVID saw a huge change in standards for general precautions around cleanliness. Search data shows that 45% of travellers have health and safety measures within their top three factors when deciding on where to travel in 2021.
What was the impact on remote work and digital nomads?
Rise of the digital nomad
During the pandemic, many people took the time to rethink their working life. When borders reopened, people were keen to find a way to travel and take their work with them. This gave rise to the growing trend of remote work. With travel back on the cards, huge personal and financial incentives opened up for aspiring digital nomads.
When travel resumed, a host of opportunities became available in the social media space, which allowed people to explore remote work overseas. Content creators such as Instagram influencers and travel bloggers were now viable career paths and became ideal for people wanting to earn a living whilst travelling the world.
As people now had the freedom to travel to new places, the incentive to work abroad was now greater than ever. Workers could achieve a desired work-life balance, whilst gaining invaluable international experience.
More family time
The pandemic deprived people of international travel, and meant that people couldn’t spend time with their families living overseas. The digital nomad lifestyle became the perfect solution for busy employees wanting to reconnect with loved ones all over the world.
Improved digital nomad incentives and benefits
With countries opening borders again, the trend of digital nomads has grown. Workers previously limited to working domestically can now choose to venture overseas and move between different countries. Tourist hotspots recognised this and have reflected this in many of the incentives provided.
Digital nomad visas
With travel resuming, many countries have started to target digital nomads as a more sustainable source of revenue, to offset the low levels of tourism. Many have started offering digital visas to make it easier to attract skilled foreign workers.
As working in a foreign country isn’t generally allowed on a tourist visa, digital nomad visas has solved this problem two-fold. They provide workers the ability to work independently and lets them stay longer than a standard tourist visa.
Several countries capitalised on the increase in travel such as Thailand, Indonesia and UAE, and introduced their own digital nomad visas which offered benefits such as tax incentives to more skilled workers. To-date, a total of 46 countries have jumped on the digital nomad visa bandwagon.
Digital nomad programs
With international travel starting to gain traction, programs were put in place to help attract digital nomads.
Packages in the form of digital nomad programs meant that travellers could bundle costs and reduce expenses across the board. Costs such as accommodation, domestic transport and co-working spaces became cheaper under these programs.
Popular destinations such as Mexico, Indonesia and Thailand have had their currencies depreciate considerably – effectively making it extremely cheap for overseas travellers. With the cost of living significantly reduced, many travellers from developed countries such as Australia, UK and the US have been prompted to try a short stint abroad due to these cost benefits.
The travel restart also prompted companies to rethink how to best utilise their employees. As many were already working remotely during the pandemic, companies were now more confident in giving their employees the flexibility to work from different locations – both domestically and internationally.
As many companies looked for ways to increase productivity – allowing employees to work from different destinations gave companies the ability to expand their brand internationally, whilst also saving costs of renting physical office space.
As such, the pandemic has given many people the chance to appreciate the value of travel and revaluate it in the context of their working lives. As the world continues to normalise, we will only continue to see a shift towards more remote work and strong growth in the digital nomad space.
About the author
Amil Prema is a former financial services professional with over four years of experience working in corporate foreign exchange. He is currently a freelance writer, covering subjects such as financial markets, entrepreneurship and health & wellness. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.