Are Digital Nomads harming our host countries?

Jules Evans
7 min readDec 23, 2022

At the moment I live in a town in Costa Rica called La Fortuna. There was nothing much here apart from farming until the 1980s, when the nearby volcano of Arenal erupted, and it kept on erupting for the next 20 years. Suddenly all the springs and rivers around Arenal warmed up and became thermal baths. There was a thermal bath boom, a spa-rush, as hotels and spas scrambled to grab access to the springs and sell it to tourists. Today, La Fortuna is one of the most popular towns in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Everything is booming, until the volcano erupts again.

It’s a town pretty much devoted to tourism — most of the shops sell toy sloths, or t-shirts saying ‘Pura Vida’, or offer adventure excursions like zip-wiring, rafting or ‘chocolate experiences’. Costa Ricans (Ticos) are extremely good at tourism, it fits their friendly, pacific, helpful personalities. My Tica girlfriend, Kattya, has a restaurant here. It’s been fascinating seeing her business grow just in the year I’ve been here — she’s expanded to a new location, launched a hostel and is now building houses for Tico workers. When she came to Europe, she was shocked by how badly the economy was doing. She is anything but the stereotype of a lazy Latino. I’m the lazy European.

Last week, to celebrate our first-year anniversary, Kattya and I went to the biggest of La Fortuna’s hot springs — Baldi, a sort of aquatic Disneyland, with different pools going up a hill, getting warmer and warmer as you near the Volcano. Some of the pools have bars you can swim to for a soggy Pina Colada. There are also water slides you can go down. This was, frankly, a terrifying experience — I was hurled around the corners so violently I ended up shutting my eyes, waiting to be spat out the other end. And that’s pretty much how this last three years has felt — like I’m on an extreme water slide, getting flung in different directions, shutting my eyes and thinking ‘I must land somewhere eventually’.

I’m here as a ‘digital nomad’ — what an awful phrase! I was one of the millions of people who had an epiphany during the pandemic and thought ‘fuck this I’m out of here’. We settled all over the Earth — Thailand, Bali, Mexico, Croatia, Portugal, Colombia. Governments competed to attract us — Costa Rica has just launched a ‘digital nomad visa’, so has Spain and Greece, Croatia launched one in 2020, while Portugal is beginning to regret attracting so many.

Digital nomads are like locusts. We move in clouds and settle on a place, utterly transforming it and sometimes devastating it. Yes, we bring a lot of money and are very good for the tourism industry — restaurants, cafes, spas, co-working spaces, Airbnbs. But the Airbnbs are often owned by expats, who use the profits to open more Airbnbs, and more and more, and suddenly locals can’t afford to live there anymore. I visited Sedona in Arizona last year, where there are so many expensive Airbnbs that local workers have to sleep in their cars.

This from a Wired article on Portugal:

Portugal has sought to draw foreign spending via an aggressive tourism campaign. In 2022, the country brought in more money from tourism than in any year prior. This summer, the capital’s iconic electric tram 28 became utterly unusable as public transportation, due to the long lines of tourists eager for an Instagrammable ride. And while the government credits tourism for helping to reduce unemployment, the reality is that the bulk of those new service-oriented jobs are painfully precarious.

In the historic neighborhoods of Alfama and Mouraria, 61 percent of homes are now registered as AL [short-term tourism] properties — meaning the majority of what were once family homes have been emptied of their residents. Earlier this year, the Lisbon city council put a freeze on new AL licenses, and in an extraordinary ruling, the country’s Supreme Court voted to restrict short- and medium-term rentals in residential buildings. Still, real estate speculation continues to wreak tremendous damage. In the past year, Lisbon has earned the dubious distinction of being ranked the third most financially unliveable city in the world, just behind London and just above Mexico City, another beleaguered digital nomad hot spot. This fall, the Portuguese press documented a distressing shortage of student housing, with report after report of undergraduates dropping out or sleeping in pantries because 80 percent of the rooms that had long been available to them were rented out.

Digital nomads can out-spend the locals and buy the beach-house they could never afford in California. But their gain is someone else’s loss — just about every beach-house on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is now owned by gringos. The beach-towns of Santa Teresa and Nosara, in particular, have become bubbles of extraordinary foreign wealth, with couples like Tom Brady and Giselle Bundchen, or Toms owner Blake Mycoskie and his wife, buying million-dollar beach villas in Costa Rica in the last few years (shortly before both couples got divorced — paradise is boring!)

I wonder what digital nomads do to local dating markets as well. You have a sudden influx of wealthy, single, globe-trotting foreigners to less-wealthy countries, they’re all on Tinder, they’re all ‘genital nomads’ as they’re called in Portugal. That’s going to have all kinds of effects. When I was in Medellin this year, it felt like an international meat market, with foreign men flocking there to date the beautiful local women. It felt quite transactional, like both sides are using the other. And it’s not always safe. This from a digital nomad site:

In mid-November, Paul Nguyen, an American citizen hailing from Orange County in California, was killed in Medellin after going out on a Tinder date with an unidentified local woman. According to the victim’s sister, Amy Nguyen, he had joined her at a nightclub after they met through the popular dating app. Mr. Nguyen went missing ‘just a few hours later’, and sadly, his body was later found next to a garbage receptacle, as reported by El Comercio. The ‘cruel and senseless crime’, as described by Mr Nguyen’s sister, is not the first occurrence of its kind in Colombia. In 2022 alone, 24 other foreigners were murdered in the territory.

The descent of the digital nomads also often leads to a rise in the local drugs trade. They come to Costa Rica for ayahuasca retreats, sure, but they also buy marijuana, cocaine, crack, then local gangs fight over these markets. Even here in La Fortuna, there was a string of drug-related murders this year (unreported) and I hear about accidents, rapes and deaths in the Costa Rican ayahuasca scene — also unreported.

At this point I can see the millennials among you rolling your eyes and saying ‘what do you expect, it’s late-stage capitalism’. Yes…but it’s also just unintended effects. The human population is so large now, that every big trend has unintended effects. Avocados take off as a health food, and suddenly there are so many avocado farms it’s harming ecosystems and leading to a surge in avocado-related gang crime.

And it’s also globalization, this extraordinary displacement of the last 40 years, with millions of people from developing countries moving to wealthy countries looking for work, and now millions of people from wealthy countries moving to developing countries looking for beach-houses, a pina colada and a sunset, and an escape from their home country’s increasingly dysfunctional politics.

What can one do to be a digital nomad with integrity? Is it possible? Here’s some things we could keep in mind:

- Are you merely extracting from the local community, or are you contributing?

- Are you paying taxes there?

- Are you investing emotionally in local relationships? Are you learning the language?

- Are you conscious of the privilege and power that comes from your greater wealth relative to the locals, and how that might play out in property markets, or in dating?

- Are you welcome there?

- Are you putting down roots or just passing through?’

I suspect many of the digital nomads created during the pandemic will end up going home, as price differentials narrow, and they miss home. Being a nomad has an emotional cost — you miss your friends and family. And you can end up in a sort of White Lotus bubble, without much contact with the local culture, language or people. You’re no longer a voter, just a consumer.

You move abroad because you don’t feel at home in your own country or culture. But you’ll never truly belong in your host country either. Is it easier to feel an alien in a foreign country than in your country of origin?