The popularity of remote working has prompted the island of Madeira to create a village for digital nomads.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been good news for digital nomadism, which is defined as working online without a fixed address. We have now all had a go at working from home, and the idea of abandoning office life to roam the world with laptop in hand no longer seems so far-fetched. So why not upgrade your kitchen table to a sunny island? Clock up the obligatory Teams calls, fire off your emails capitalising on any time difference, then hit the beach.
This is the live/work/move dream powering the world’s first Digital Nomad Village which launched in February 2021 on the Portuguese island of Madeira. “The vision is to decentralise from big cities,” explains Gonçalo Hall, a consultant on the project, “and create small communities where we can have deep connections”. He previously worked on schemes to repopulate abandoned rural villages in Italy with remote workers, and believes the pandemic has merely accelerated what was a growing trend towards living and working in a much freer way.
It certainly helps that this pioneering community is located in Ponta do Sol, one of the sunniest spots on this magnificently scenic island. Exploiting a gap in the cliffs, the tranquil, palm-shaded town borders a beach of grey volcanic pebbles with a smattering of small shops and restaurants gathered around the John Dos Passos Cultural Center. Here, up to 57 registered nomads can work for free in a modern building framed in attractive gardens, an airy space that boasts a robust 500Mb download/300Mb upload wifi connection. There are a few rules: one is that all calls must be taken outside so as not to disturb coworkers, and the centre is only open on weekdays from 9am to 6pm.
Despite the warm sun and radiant blue sky outside, the mood within is serious. Headphones on, noses to screens, tap-tap-tap… “We get lawyers, doctors, accountants, journalists, families, millionaires, employees of big companies – everyone!” enthuses Hall. By March this year 11,600 workers had registered, with the majority from the US, Brazil and UK. Of these, more than 5,200 have actually visited the island, with around half coming for their first taste of digital nomadism. Most stay a couple of months and, Hall insists, are “definitely not here to party”. There are lots of social activities, though, from jogging and skill-sharing sessions to a regular Friday night get-together.
“I’m working way more than I expected,” reflects 29-year-old Finn Cahill-Webb, a Berlin-based Londoner who is teaching himself video editing. “The nature here is gorgeous and you meet so many people.” Another fan is 30 year-old Pelin Duran from Copenhagen, who works as a translator and had never visited Portugal before. She loves the warmth of the island and the chance to walk its celebrated levadas, a network of level footpaths following irrigation channels deep into its mountains and forests.
What does Madeira get out of this? “We estimate the benefits to the local economy to be around €1.5 million a month,” reports Micaela Vieira from Startup Madeira, the regional BIC (Business Innovation Center) behind the project. Nomads spend around €1,800 a month on accommodation, transport and meals, and the scheme has been so successful it is guaranteed to continue until at least 2024. Hall is working on a similar initiative in Cape Verde, and there is a hope that these two Atlantic archipelagos, along with the Azores and Canary Islands – which are collectively known as Macaronesia – will one day become a wired and welcoming region as vibrant and popular as the Caribbean.
With its local hosts, organised events and supportive Slack community, Madeira offers budding nomads the softest of introductions to this seductive lifestyle, but elsewhere the opportunities can be less structured. Some of the earliest nomad gathering points, such as Playa del Carmen in Mexico, Chiang Mai in Thailand and Canggu in Bali developed organically with the low cost of living a key factor. The pandemic has brought an element of focus and commercialism to this trend as hotels, resorts and accommodation platforms seek to fill rooms by offering deals and facilities to remote workers. Tourism boards have also jumped on the bandwagon, launching ‘desk in the sun’ visa schemes to attract laptop-carrying globetrotters, while go-ahead municipalities, such as the Italian mountain resort of Courmayeur Mont Blanc, have introduced ‘workation stations’ in the hope of attracting visitors who want to combine Zoom calls with zooming down the slopes.
For evangelists such as Hall, this is missing the point. Digital nomadism has the potential to become much more than a smart way to reboot tourism-dependent economies. It is about improving a worker’s personal wellbeing and by definition encourages international relationships. It relishes the stimulation travel brings and recognises that it is time to move on from the drudgery of commuting to the same office environment.
To the independent-minded, self-motivated travellers who have flocked to Ponta do Sol, working life seems full of possibilities. The mood in its seaside bars is buoyant as they gather to chat and catch the sunset over an after-work glass of poncha, a potent local drink made with Madeiran rum and fruit juice. As Gonçalo Hall puts it with a smile, “once you get used to freedom, there is no way back”.
Digital Nomad Destinations
A ski resort in the Pirin Mountains is an established destination for digital nomads, thanks in part to Bulgaria’s attractive income tax rate of 10 per cent. Co-founded in 2016 by German entrepreneur Matthias Zeitler, coworking Bankso is a community of more than 100 members who use workspaces varying from ‘quiet’ to ‘social’ along with a forest ‘playground’. coworkingbankso.com
Nomadcity helps remote workers get down to business in several locations on Gran Canaria. Advice is backed up with case studies and invitations to join local nomad communities. nomadcity.org
Launched in October 2021, Digital Nomad Valley is based at a beachfront resort 30 minutes’ walk from the centre of World Heritage-listed Zadar. There is self-catering accommodation from studios to three-bedroom units, plus a coworking space in the hotel and free gym access. workremotelycroatia.com
Headquartered in Ponta do Sol, this government-backed scheme offers nomads support at five locations, including the sister island of Porto Santo. digitalnomads.startupmadeira.eu
Some 50km northwest of Lisbon, Ericiera is a surfing hotspot with a growing digital nomad scene. There are standalone coworking spaces, including Kelp Cowork (kelpcowork.com), and others with accommodation included, such as stylish Sunago House, a 15-minute bike ride from the beach. sunagohouse.com
Close to Ourense in the north of the country, Sende is home to a rural coworking community started in 2013 that has been visited by 3,500 nomads from over 50 countries. Open from June to November it is “an experience, not a hotel” with a communal kitchen and accommodation in five village houses. A second location in Setubal, on the Portuguese coast near Lisbon, is in development. sende.co
Start researching with the Work from Wherever Index compiled by online travel agency Kayak (kayak.co.uk/work-from-wherever/rank), which ranks countries to work from with a useful map that includes time zones.
Digital Nomads World publishes guides to more than 160 destinations from Anchorage to Wellington, including a ‘personal experience’ report from each place (digitalnomads.world).
Outsite, which charges a membership fee, provides a gateway to upscale co-living and working locations in sunshine destinations as varied as Hawaii, Costa Rica and Bali (outsite.co).
The Digital Nomad Handbook (Lonely Planet, £12.99) is a dedicated guide to living and working on the road.
Words: Nigel Tisdall