August 16, 2020 – As the discussion about a digital nomad visa (DNV) in Croatia gains traction, one of Croatia’s digital nomad pioneers offers her thoughts on the exciting possibilities.
Repopulating regional areas. Stopping the brain drain and youth exodus. A restaurant, apartment or tour company open year-round. The digital nomad visa can do all this for Croatia.
Yet – this ‘fix’ isn’t simply an extension of tourism, making Croatia (or any destination offering this) a 365 destination. The introduction of a Digital Nomad Visa now enters migration policy. It will transform society, business and the environment – possibly in an overwhelming rush.
Is Croatia ready?
Like most countries scrambling to reinvent their tourism-based economies, Croatia also now has a digital nomad visa on the table. “Digital Nomads will save, boost and finance Croatia… – especially in ‘off season’”. This is the catch cry. Yet, as more countries also move to digital nomad friendly status, how will we differentiate? How will we get it right – especially with a legacy ‘Smash and Grab’ mass tourism model? Now, instead of the tourist, there will be a transition period with the ‘new’ types of visitor coming here to work and live longer than a short stay holiday. This matter is a mix of migration policy and a year-round tourism offer – going beyond filling apartments from October to May.
Croatia will never be the same. The potential benefits are great. The negatives can be mitigated. Here’s how.
Being at the coalface – that is, running a cowork space and digital nomad services on Croatia’s coast with Saltwater, I should be happy about the introduction of a Digital Nomad Visa.
It’s Croatia – I’m wary. Here’s why.
As a start, here are the top 10 things a digital nomad visa – without proper planning and consultation – will bring, but can be mitigated in advance.
1. The New Cruise Ship Crowds – Coming To a Cafe Near You
The divisive cruise ship crowds we have been ‘spared’ from due to COVI19 mean we have (generally) clearer streets and – in one city, the absence of almost 1 million “just looking, congesting streets and not spending” visitors.
We all know which city.
The current crowds at least shop, stay and dine. A digital nomad visa – without a well-informed strategy, will mean cafes – especially specialty coffee cafes – will be new congestion points. This should be frightening for a cafe culture like Croatia has – and which the Tourism Board identified as one of the ‘charms’, or Unique Selling Points (USPs), about us.
How do we know this? Let’s look at a few examples from popular digital nomad/remote work spots around the world:
- In a small cafe in Cambodia, six millennials occupy the cafe’s largest table, sipping a pearl ice tea for 6 hours, slowing the business POS internet. Gone is the local vibe.
- In Madrid, people get kicked out of cafes if they simply open up a laptop. An already famed digital nomad destination, cafes in Spain however, are prepared. Signage. Minimum spends. Simple stuff. This nomad’s experience in Spain is one of thousands.
- In LA, one of Split’s local specialty coffee providers 4 Coffee Soul Food saw coffee shops full of only people staring at screens, not communicating with each other. 4 Coffee is a hole in the wall – it doesn’t even have seating, yet attracts a cult following and crowd outside.
The number of would-be customers avoid cafes full of computer users. I already see it in Split. I’m one of them walking by… not just because I have an office – I too need to work when on the go. Coffee here is a ritual. One which is about to be transformed, ubiquitously.
Like the ‘Starbucks Office’ at the rise of the Gig Economy (they had good wifi and presence), cafes will be the default go-to for incoming nomads. 5 ways a cafe business can prepare, are:
- Limit the hours a guest can sit and work (restaurants do this).
- If it’s a peak time – state and have your laptop usage policy in clear sight.
- Have designated ‘laptop’ seats or areas custom for computer users.
- Insist on a minimum spend.
- Charge. Yes – charge. Corkage, cakeage… why not computer usage? Especially if it is a laptop-friendly area.
From a policy standpoint, governments should assist cafes with this education and equipment transitions. These will be the first points of call – central to digital nomadism is community. Cafes bring a blend of the cowork vibe, but introduction to Croatia’s ethos.
The right moves here are great for the business, for digital nomads – and you and I, who want to continue to enjoy our coffee.
2. Rents will rise… The owner sees a Cash Cow
Berlin put a cap on their rentals because of its digital nomad allure. It is still difficult to find an apartment. Certain countries impose taxes if a renting period passes a time threshold (investment versus residential property status). The beauty here is, there are a number of examples to draw from and address this one.
As a long-stay accommodation finder, I am already seeing renegade landlord spikes. When a digital nomad ‘extends’ their stay, the pricing is based on the assumption ‘foreign earners’ are more affluent.
Rent rises also impact locals. This is already evident with tourist hotspots. Nothing about this point is ‘news’. This point however needs a considered strategy in how to protect digital nomads AND locals, to avoid the reputation fallout from this.
3. Up Your Offer – Croatia’s USPs.
Croatia needs to get clearer on its offer in comparison to current and emerging ‘hotspots’. Other Mediterranean countries (namely, Spain and Portugal) are hubs for digital nomads. The ‘Balkans’ however, is shaping up as the one to watch, with more trepidation about travelling to Asia, digital nomads consider us the start of a nomadic path to the ‘cheaper part of Europe’.
How do we compare to other Mediterranean hotspots? It’s not us on price.
It’s not us on infrastructure (lack of affordable hubs and city support).
It’s not us on readiness – i.e. educating councils and businesses and locals – ‘hosts’ – on digital nomad etiquette, providing multilingual information, etc. The list is very, very long.
It is us on active experiences, nature, gastronomy, geography, English and digital proficiency of Croatia’s youth. Supporting the sustainable minded businesses who offer these things will elevate the offer to digital nomads. This needs to be implemented into the USPs in the “Digital Nomad Visa” brochure. And the businesses who offer this supported with education and incentives.
Further, a digital nomad visa in itself is an opportunity for local youth to not only get work – but exposure and mentoring from an international audience.
Then there are the things digital nomads actually need, especially in the COVID19 era. And Croatia is NOT ready on these… and will miss the opportunity.
Current providers know these things. It’s not some council worker or travel blogger.
Their needs can only be addressed by smart consultation – a steering committee. This steering committee should consist of current and future cowork space providers, returning youth with NGOs such as Culture Hub Croatia, the hospitality sector, travel agencies, local councils already successfully implementing digital nomad friendly services. And digital nomads.
4. Neglecting regional areas
Ireland’s first Gigabyte town – for the layman, a REALLY fast internet speed town, is in Skibbereen, a rural area. Its population is about 2,000. On a recent “Recovery of the Coworking Sector” online conference hosted by EdgeRyders, the Irish contingent, who were the most prominent in the group, related the country’s approach to create even more rural hubs as a direct result of COVID19. Repopulating rural areas, working for a company based in Dublin.
This alone is one approach to stop the already high rents in tourism hotspots. Other approaches are having more regionally focused requirements for digital nomads.
Take Australia’s migration policies, boats aside.
One of Australia’s youth working visas, for those who wish to extend their stays, stipulates they must do 3 months of specified work. This includes fruit picking, fishing and now bushfire recovery work. Labour shortages. Desire to stay in a country. Two birds. One stone.
Also in Australia, for citizenship and residency requests, priority is given to anyone taking residency in non-metropolitan areas – acting like an ‘express lane’ to getting your required permit – and, repopulating regional and rural areas.
5. Ireland… and other places the Youth and Brain Drain Professionals Go
Dublin is a pertinent example due to its headquarter status in Europe for many global businesses. Add to that, a lot of remote work suitable jobs. And a lot of youth from Croatia.
These tides are turning. This coming week, I am off to a small coastal town. The mayor is offering central office space for peppercorn rent, ie. 1 kuna. There are already 4 young tech workers who have returned from Dublin due to COVID19. Comparing rent in Dublin to what is likely a family-owned property is a no-brainer. Even if just temporary. Companies in Dublin are offering remote work as a perk to attract and retain talent. Traditionally, Portugal is the preferred location (refer to their golden visa and Lisbon’s startup initiative from 2008, it is no wonder).
“Why not Croatia?” asked the recently returned tech guy. So am I. Are you?
Any savvy digital nomad knows returning to a family-owned property – if only for a short time, will save living costs in larger cities, and the flow on effects are immense.
- The youth exodus and brain drain would now be by choice not necessity and the upcoming young generation will see, first hand, remote work opportunities in action.
- Colleagues. Friends. Homeswaps.
The opportunities are exciting and endless with a program which supports what is effectively a global network of ambassadors who can bring guests to their hometowns. Digital nomads invite friends and family to join them. This in some cases triples how many visitors 1 digital nomad brings. And I consider we all know the power of human contact ‘spread’ and numbers by now.
A digital nomad visa – while great for a non-citizen, should also recognise returning remote working Croatian nationals, and their role in encouraging their network of remote workers to visit. This means creating hubs – i.e. city supported venues – for locals to work, and therefore an environment ideal for digital nomads.
It is after all, the local culture people want to experience. This is hard if there’s no one there. And when we don’t have the infrastructure or open-mindedness of decision-makers.
6. Local Opportunities – Capacity Building
Integral to offering a DNV are the opportunities for locals. And not just as service workers. Upskilling. Bringing their remote work jobs and experience here are lawyers, marketing professionals, coaches, software developers, serial entrepreneurs. Many with an interest in local community engagement and volunteering.
Adding programs to participate in mentoring and volunteering (like the fruit picking example in Australia above) are key. In this instance, it could be coding camps.
Lectures. Training. Otherwise, the disparity in wages and skills will only widen. This is an opportunity to create lasting impact, and a sustainable model.
Integrating a ‘return of service’ component (volunteer or otherwise) can be part of a DNV to differentiate the offer from other digital nomad hotspots. The Australian example brings 3 months of specified work if looking to extend. Crafting the right balance of options, which bring benefit to Croatia and the digital nomad is possible.
And, surprisingly easy to implement.7.
7. Full transparency and digitalisation from the start
Ease. Online. Multilingualism.
No pečat (stamp).
Only a seamless, local-made (why not while we’re at it) informative platform to make applying and maintaining a visa world-class.
There are many examples to base it on. This one will do.
In 2018, the European Creative Hubs Network held their finale event in Brussels, after a 2-year pilot project looking at this sector and with the motto “strength in numbers”. There were many takeaways, but among them – the triad of collaboration between the local council, remote worker and business were key.
Local councils require two things to start to assist the implementation of a Digital Nomad Visa in Croatia. The first is information and education. The next is how to deliver this.
As an example, knowing a digital nomad will invite friends and family, the digital nomad sitting in a small cafe, say in Vodice, appears small. However, their network is wide. How can the local council support this visitor? Through user case scenarios, local councils can understand who digital nomads are, what they need – and what the city already has and can offer.
Abandoned school buildings, empty hostels, out of work taxi drivers. The infrastructure is there. It is not a great deal of imagination required, but a city can provide a complete offer to digital nomads with the right planning.
9. Tenancy Protection
Rent has been noted, but this point is so key – it needs to be added as its own point. Longstay renters have notoriously been ‘promised’ year-long rentals, only to be kicked out on 1 May, and facing a high priced rental market as the tourism season begins.
As the provider of a coworking space, rental protection does not exist. My first space was flooded – which the landlady saw no problem with, and in fact wanted to raise the rent by 1000 euro. My second space had a police station visit in the first week, and one in the final week when it was finally time to exit. I do not recommend opening a coworking space in Croatia – as things stand. I also know other spaces are at the mercy of increased rents, when due to lack of being a strong digital nomad destination, the arrivals into Croatia are unpredictable (COVID19 aside), we have no Gateway city market, and if in a tourist area, commercial property prices in good locations make the entry barriers very cost-prohibitive. Our current space is a building with limited working hours, so it is impossible to work to a digital nomad time zone.
I am looking at alternatives, and pleased to report I am working with boutique hotels and a progressive-minded young couple with a hostel in Split.
There is a culture of landlords again seeing a “Cash Cow” and breaking 3-year terms (my first space was occupied for 1 year, and the rental agreement was 3. The piece of paper, clearly worthless).
In order for this sector to survive and accommodate digital nomads – tenancy protection needs to be stronger. Digital nomads are ‘community’ minded, and with the increasing virtual lifestyle we need, In Real Life (IRL) meetups will be among the most valuable experiences to offer.
If we aren’t supported in this area, a Digital Nomad Visa will disappoint arrivals and not be the ‘saving grace’ Croatia thinks it brings. “Help” – is what I am really saying.
10. Taxes, Legal and Insurances
Many visas have a list of requirements, from proof of enough funds to health insurance. Coming to a new country brings significant costs to a visitor. Add unfamiliarity with a system – this will prove even more of a struggle, particularly with accessing information. Concise, clear information and access to official assistance is required to ensure digital nomads are clear on their requirements. Can the current system cope? The all too familiar “I went to the counter two days in a row and got conflicting information” is not acceptable and potentially damaging to a digital nomad’s finances, immigration status and health.
With COVID19 especially, healthcare eligibility and requirements is another factor which needs clear communication.
The above-mentioned steering committee to develop a digital nomad visa requires professionals in this field to contribute to shaping a Digital Nomad Visa.
While these seem like onerous tasks – the benefits of bringing in digital nomads to Croatia far outweigh the initial ‘setup’ and maintenance required. The number of unemployed youth about to hit the HZZO after the ‘season’ could instead have the opportunity to be part of this delivery – and shaping their country, gaining experience and ensuring a prosperous future.
To end, last night sitting around a table on Ciovo, a Slavonian Croatian family now living in Stuttgart asked what I did. I explained I was born in Australia but run a coworking space. The husband, Ronald – looked at his wife and said they could finally return. She could bring her insurance job and they could even spend 6 months in Dubrovnik – together, as he has business lined up there. And he had read about “neki Nizozemac” (some Dutch guy) talking about digital nomads. Their son of 13 was with them. The wife wondered if the company would allow it. I suggested she propose a 1-3 month trial, after which she could return. Proposing a trial is a common practice in case you are considering a remote work location.
I returned to Split wondering – is this the start of a return wave? I hope so.
If you are business, local council, current or future digital nomad – and have any questions or comments about improving your business or town or what a digital nomad visa should have, please share them via [email protected] Subject DNV.