August 27, 2020 – The announcement that the Croatian Government plans to introduce a digital nomad visa for Croatia is wonderful news, but there is so much more to ponder in the story behind it and the direction it could take Croatia.
Everyone is stunned.
The sheer speed of it.
Just 45 days after a Dutch entrepreneur wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic asking for a digital nomad visa for Croatia, the legislative framework for such a visa will be presented by the government today with the full backing of the Prime Minister and his entire cabinet. My understanding is that the visa should be available as early as later this year.
In the middle of a pandemic.
In the middle of summer.
Totally unheard of. A sign – perhaps? – that the first seeds of Croatia 2.0 are beginning to take hold in the corridors of power? Perhaps, perhaps not, but extraordinary nonetheless.
Of all the topics I have written about in Croatia over the last 10 years, none has given me more diverse and stimulating feedback that the nomad topic. With no other media writing about the issue in Croatia, every article on the topic brought new connections of nomads in love with Croatia who would certainly take advantage of such an opportunity. Wealth-creating nomads. Mindset-changing nomads.
But there has also been a steady drip-feeding of feedback from another source – locals. When I first started writing about it over a year ago, many locals dismissed it as some kind of tax dodge or hippie initiative, and few took it seriously. But as the topic refused to go away, and the legacy of corona to advancing the cause of a more digital Croatia kept it in focus, more and more people began to see the opportunity. And the opportunity can be summarised in one paragraph:
Croatia has the best lifestyle in Europe. More and more people work in the same global office these days. It is called the Internet, and the office only has two real variables – connectivity (3G, 4G, 5G) and time zones. Apart from that, the office is essentially the same. When we leave the office, we go home. Many people have that home in the village they are from, surrounded by their friends, but an increasing number want to go home to lifestyle. A swim in the Adriatic before dinner, perhaps? And if Croatia has the best lifestyle in Europe, it is a natural destination for those wealth-creating mindset-changing nomads. Working online in their country of origin, spending and contributing to the community in Croatia. Not all nomads will want to be on the beach in July. We have one case of a digital nomad from Denver, who spent several months in Osijek – a city thousands are emigrating from as there is no opportunity – and found it to be one of the best places she had ever lived. It was safe, affordable, great people, fantastic food, wine and nature.
There will be an estimated 1 billion remote workers by 2035. As the lifestyle capital of Europe and with the proper approach, there is no reason why Croatia could not capture 3% of that market. And these are not visitors for a week on the beach, but longer-term arrivals – a month, three or (with the introduction of the visa) as long as they want. Currently, the only other countries which offer such a visa (and all from this year) are Barbados, Bermuda, Georgia and Estonia. 3% of arrivals all over the country all through the year would represent 30 million people using their spending power to boost the Croatian economy.
It is worth reflecting on the journey and timeline of the Croatian digital nomad visa story, as there are lessons to be learned for other similar initiatives, as well as looking at the considerable role played by expats in bringing this initiative to fruition.
I first became aware of the whole digital nomad opportunity in Spring last year when I met an Australian returnee, Tanja Polugebic, in Split, where she had opened one of the first coworking spaces in Croatia, Saltwater Split. Croatia needs to attract its young and talented diaspora, with all their ideas, and Tanja is a perfect example of someone who has returned, worked really hard and positively touched the mindset of everyone she meets. You can read her TCN interview last year here.
Listening to her vision of how Croatia could be as a digital nomad destination was fascinating, and I really hope that once the visa is introduced, that the government hires her as a consultant in order to maximise the opportunity, as she already sees the opportunities and the pitfalls, some of which she outlined in 10 Ways Croatia Will Be At The Forefront of Countries with a Digital Nomad Visa (DNV).
But it was another expat, German Andrea Wil Gerdes, who raised the issue at a Croatian conference for the first time in June 2019 at the MBA Croatia conference – How to be Globally Competitive from Croatia. His assertion that the Croatian economy could be turned around in 6 months might have sounded fanciful to many, but there was definitely something in the logic, as there had been with Tanja. The debate was moving forward.
And the more I wrote, the more contact I had with those wanting to take advantage of the opportunity, and more locals seeing the opportunity. But the biggest push came from a conversation with another expat, Dutchman Jan de Jong in Split. Due to speak at a tourism conference in May, we brainstormed a few topics for him to think about, including digital nomad tourism. And the rest is history after he presented digital nomad tourism as a strategy for the first time at a conference in Croatia. Timeline May 5 – just 113 days ago.
Six days later, a feature in the national media for the first time, and then on July 11 – just 45 days ago, an open letter to the Prime Minister.
And this is where things get interesting. In the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of the summer, not only was the response to this open letter quick, but wheels were put in motion by several ministries very quickly. A meeting at the Ministry of the Interior was a precursor to a meeting with PM Plenkovic yesterday, whose subsequent tweet of the meeting confirmed that he would be pushing for the visa.
And the timing could not be more perfect, as a debate of small amendments to the Foreigners Act is scheduled for today, and so the digital nomad visa has been added to Article 57, Point 11. With the full support of the cabinet and very little reason to object to it, Croatia should be offering this new service within weeks if all goes well.
Even more encouraging has been the coordination between the ministries, as I understood from Jan over our celebratory drink last night. Ministries are briefed and engaged, and more meetings will take place in the coming days and weeks to iron out various issues.
It is particularly encouraging that Croatia will be looking to the Estonian model for the implementation of the visa. The more that Croatia looks to Estonia to learn about administration, the better. As the undisputed Kings of Europe for digital administration, Croatia has a lot to learn from the progressive Baltic state, and let’s hope that the nomad visa will be the tip of the iceberg as the country moves towards Croatia 2.0.
45 days in the middle of summer during a pandemic. A small and common sense legislation change which immediately puts Croatia at the forefront of this rapidly expanding new industry. A simple and progressive idea which was well-received and acted upon. It is particularly encouraging that ideas from outside are being considered. We all want a better Croatia, and there is no need to reinvent the wheel each time. Estonia deserves huge credit for what they have achieved with their digitalisation journey, and I am sure they would be happier than anyone if others were to adopt it.
And if things can change this quickly, what other low-hanging fruit is out there to take advantage of in a similar way, while boosting the economy without spending too much? Perhaps someone could take a look at the missed opportunity for retired people, especially when compared to Portugal. Like the nomad visa, simple to fix – Lessons from Portugal: Taking Advantage of the Retirement Lifestyle Opportunity.
Many thanks to all involved in pushing the digital nomad visa story for Croatia. The future looks a little brighter today.
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