How to Be an Ethical Digital Nomad
In the past few years, the number of digital nomads around the world has exploded. After the COVID-19 pandemic, many people moved to remote work. This has sparked a migration of Americans, Europeans, and other nationalities to various countries around the world. And who can blame digital nomads for wanting to do so? Having the flexibility to bring your job with you as you explore the world is a game changer.
That said, there are some ethical downsides of being a digital nomad that we must address. Several problems have arisen with the swift rise in remote workers and the migration of people with high-earning salaries to low-income communities. Our duty as digital nomads is to come to terms with these ethical dilemmas and act on them to keep our alternative lifestyles as sustainable as possible.
Are There Ethical Dilemmas with Being a Digital Nomad?
The short answer to this is: yes. It is possible to work and roam the globe in a way that has little effect on the world. However, most digital nomads leave behind a trail of problematic debris as they gallop across the world.
So, what are the ethical implications of being a digital nomad?
The most prevalent issue that has stemmed from a mass migration of digital nomads is gentrification.
This is a major issue in digital nomad hubs such as Mexico City, Lisbon, and Medellín. In these cities, the influx of digital nomads earning three, four, or even five times the average local salary has started pushing the local community out and making way for “rich” foreigners.
For example, two popular digital nomad neighborhoods in Mexico City are La Condessa and Roma. Neither of these neighborhoods has been considered an “affordable” area of CDMX for years. But prior to the last few years, monthly rates for apartments were still around 10,000 to 15,000 MXN per month (600 to 900 USD). Now, with digital nomads flocking to these areas, landlords have discovered they can charge double that on Airbnb, which effectively prices locals out.
This has created a “Gringo-ville” or a neighborhood full of foreign residents instead of locals. Of course, not all digital nomads are white. But considering nearly 80% of digital nomads are from the USA or Europe, it is safe to say that there is a racial element to this. It is a bad look, to say the least, to have a large group of white foreigners moving in and displacing non-white locals.
We don’t see the point in leaving our homes to just create a miniature version of that country in a new place. That just takes all of the fun out of traveling.
Locals in popular digital nomad cities worldwide, especially those in Latin America, have started protesting and speaking out at digital nomad communities. This has created a lot of tension between digital nomads and locals in these regions. This is why it is incredibly important for digital nomads to understand this issue and learn how to be more ethical and understanding.
Pushing Out Local Businesses
This issue is directly related to the gentrification problem. Another effect of an oversaturation of digital nomads is that local establishments are also forced out. That local mom-and-pop shop on the corner? Replaced by a Pilates studio. The locally-owned convenience store? Replaced by a holistic market. What happened to the cute little coffee shop? It was replaced by a huge coworking space. This happens all too often in popular digital nomad hubs, which is sad to see.
One of our favorite things about living in a new country is living as the locals do. Going to local restaurants, cafes, parks, etc. In fact, we try to avoid areas with a high density of tourists and digital nomads because you tend to get a more expensive and less authentic experience.
Digital Nomad Bubbles
One of the first places we went where we noticed a massive digital nomad bubble was Canggu in Bali. Bali is extremely popular with tourists and digital nomads. And Canggu is likely the region of the island with the highest density of remote workers. Canggu, specifically the Batu Balong and Berawa areas, feel more like an amusement park for digital nomads than a real place. This area is full of yoga and Pilates studios, craft beer, expensive Western food, and fancy beach clubs.
We met tons of digital nomads in Bali that refused to eat at local restaurants because they didn’t want to get sick. Instead, they ate at and supported restaurants that were owned by people from the US and Europe, in turn taking money away from the local community. These digital nomad bubbles fuel so many issues. And when you have hundreds (if not thousands) of high-earning foreigners living in one area of a city, you create a “bubble” that does not include locals.
The “It’s Soo Cheap Here” Attitude
You will always hear terms like “lifestyle hack” or “living cheaper” used by location-independent workers when describing their super “cheap” living costs. But it is very important for high-earning foreigners in a country to understand the local salaries to put the low living costs into perspective. When a country is affordable for you, it usually means that the local salary is very low.
For example, Chiang Mai in Thailand is one of the most prominent digital nomad hotspots in the world. This is primarily due to the safety, low relative living costs, and laid-back lifestyle. That said, the average salary for locals in Chiang Mai is just over $1,000 per month, and the minimum wage is around $200 per month. So, boasting about how cheap the country is for you is disrespectful to the waiters, taxi drivers, and street cleaners who earn much, much less.
Imagine if you had been saving for weeks to take your family out to a nice restaurant for dinner, and when you get to the restaurant, you hear some foreigners talking about how cheap the restaurant is. This would be upsetting, wouldn’t it?
How to Be an Ethical Digital Nomad
So, now you know some of the main ethical issues bound to us as digital nomads. But don’t worry; this doesn’t mean you have to give up your lifestyle. Here are some changes you can make and things to keep in mind as you travel ethically and ultimately give the location’s independent worker community a good name.
Don’t Go to Oversaturated Locations
As we mentioned above, there are some cities around the world that are becoming (or have already long been) oversaturated with digital nomads. If a city already has issues with digital nomads, it probably is a good idea to avoid this location. We find that the best cities for digital nomads are places with fewer expats, where you get a more authentic experience and live as the locals do.
Some of the most oversaturated digital nomad destinations include:
- Chiang Mai – Thailand
- Medellin – Colombia
- Mexico City – Mexico
- Lisbon – Portugal
- Canggu – Bali (Indonesia)
- San Miguel De Allende – Mexico
- Bangkok – Thailand
Unlike hotels, homestays, and hostels, Airbnbs often offer those looking for a short-term stay a private and comfortable experience in apartments or houses. The main issue with this is that Airbnbs cost much more than renting an apartment long-term. So, these apartments are no longer a housing option for locals when landlords put their properties on Airbnb.
We know how tempting it can be to rent an Airbnb. You can find apartments in cities like Lima or Medellin with a washing machine, a shared pool, a gym, a smart TV, and other premium amenities for around the same price as a hotel. The main issue here is that landlords are charging digital nomads three to five times the local rent prices, making it a much better business than renting to locals.
Good Airbnb Alternatives
The main takeaway here is to avoid taking away a home from a local. But living in a hotel or hostel long-term is obviously not ideal, so what are your alternatives to Airbnb?
- Rent an apartment long-term: This is obviously only a viable option if you plan to stay somewhere for 6 months or longer. But renting a long-term apartment is the most ethical and most affordable accommodation option.
- Homestays: A homestay is when you stay with a local family, usually in their home. This is less private but is usually much more affordable, and you get a very intimate and authentic experience. It is also a great way to learn the local language!
- Guest houses: Guest houses are similar to homestays but with a bit more privacy. They offer similar amenities to a hotel and Airbnb, but you stay in a building on the family’s property.
- Home Exchanges: This is a great option if you own a house somewhere that you are willing to swap with a stranger elsewhere in the world! Homeexchange.com is our favorite platform for this.
- Housesitting: If you are an animal lover, you can also look into joining TrustedHousesitters or another housesitting agency. With these programs, you essentially watch over someone’s home and take care of their pets while they are on vacation in exchange for staying at their house for free!
Get a Visa to Stay Long Term
Most digital nomads don’t know this, but it is actually illegal in most countries to enter on a tourist visa and work while in the country. Of course, this is rarely enforced. Most countries are happy to have foreigners come in and spend money, but it is crucial to understand that when you enter a country on a tourist visa with the intention to work remotely, you may be breaking the law.
The fix for this? Get a long-term visa! Luckily, there are dozens of countries with active digital nomad visas. And plenty more have announced plans to release visas soon. The requirements for these visas vary, but they generally allow you to stay in a country for a more extended period than a tourist visa. These digital nomad visas also will enable you to work remotely while in the country and may require you to pay taxes (usually, the taxes are lower than the standard rates of that country). Obviously, you aren’t only tied to staying in countries with digital nomad visas as a remote worker. There are plenty of long-term visa options that will ensure you are legally working in a country.
Give Back to Your Community
This is a big one, especially if you aren’t paying taxes in the country you live in. But don’t skip this if you are!
If you are working in a country while on a tourist visa or using a digital nomad visa that doesn’t require you to pay local taxes (such as in Greece or Ecuador), you should still make sure you are giving back to the local community in some way.
You may say, “But hey, I’m spending my hard-earned money here. Isn’t that enough?”
Well. Not really. It is true that spending your USD or EUR in a lower-income country does help the overall economy in the long run. But it is hard to know if your money is really going toward the people who need it the most.
For example, when you pay taxes, your money goes to the national government. The government then divvies out the funds to various sectors such as infrastructure, defense, healthcare, schools, and welfare.
On the other hand, when you simply spend your money in a country, most of this money goes to large companies and small business owners. While this does help a bit, you aren’t really directly supporting the community in a beneficial way.
So How Can You Give Back?
There are tons of ways to the community you are living in. The best, of course, is to donate money to a reputable charity. But here are some other great ways to show some love:
- Volunteer at a food bank, homeless shelter, or animal shelter
- Volunteer to teach English at a local school
- Go to a language exchange
- Support local initiatives
- Donate your clothes, books, electronics, and other products
The main thing here is to make sure you are giving at least as much as you are taking from your community as a digital nomad. Remember, the community you live in is also your community now. So, don’t litter, treat people with respect, and help people in your community as if they are your own family.
Support Local Establishments
As we mentioned above, it’s imperative to support local restaurants, corner stores, coffee shops, accommodation, coworking spaces, and other locally owned businesses over large international corporations. Local businesses are the lifeblood of a place. Without them, cities can feel bland and monotonous. We totally sympathize with having a craving for Starbucks or McDonald’s every once in a while. But think about how a HUGE corporation like this affects the local restaurant next door before you order yourself a Big Mac or a Grande Pumpkin Spice Latte.
Beyond actually attending these local establishments, you can also support local businesses in your nomad destinations by leaving good reviews and promoting your favorite places on your blog, Instagram, or other outlets!
Tip Well (When Appropriate)
We know how annoying it can be to get used to tipping culture if you aren’t from a country that tips. But tipping can also be a great way to show your appreciation to the service staff at your favorite restaurant, tour guides, taxi drivers, and others who go beyond their pay grade to make you comfortable.
Giving a little something extra to the staff is a good habit when living in another country as a digital nomad. You aren’t going to miss that extra dollar or two. But it could make a huge difference for someone, especially if you are live in a lower-income country such as Ecuador, Colombia, Thailand, Vietnam, or Indonesia. We tip generously even in countries where tipping isn’t really the norm (provided the service we receive is good).
Don’t Haggle (Too Much)
One crazy culture shock that hits people from the USA and Europe when they travel to Latin America, Africa, or Asia is the “art of haggling”. When you buy clothes, jewelry, souvenirs, and other goods, the price is generally negotiable. Keep in mind that this doesn’t usually apply to food or accommodation.
While haggling is welcome and even expected in many cultures, you should be careful not to overuse it. In many places, the local street vendors will ask for three or even four times the normal price of the item they sell. When this is the case, it is obviously normal to barter with them to get a better price.
On the other hand, if the asking price is reasonable to you, there is really no reason to haggle. While you may be able to get another small discount on top of the price, it really isn’t ethical to ask a hard-working local seller to bump the cost of their goods down to ridiculously low levels. Paying an extra dollar for a t-shirt in Vietnam isn’t going to make much of a difference for you, but $1 is the cost of a meal for a local in Vietnam. So, think about what it means to ask for a lower price on an item before you over-haggle.
Take a Language Class
Listen. We aren’t expecting you to become fluent in Thai or Estonian, but you’d be surprised how far knowing a bit of the local language will get you. Taking a language class and learning a bit of the native tongue of the country you are in will make your life easier and allow you to make more connections with the locals.
You also show your respect to the locals by speaking and attempting to understand their language. And in our experience, when you give respect, you receive respect. There are always great opportunities to learn the local language in your nomad destination. You can take private lessons, use an online platform like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone, or enroll in an intensive immersion group class.
Check Your Privilege
It is extremely important for digital nomads to understand their privilege. We are part of an amazing group of individuals that are able to grab life by the horns and work anywhere where we can set up our laptops and connect to WiFi. This is amazing, and many people have worked so hard to get to this point. But we all have to recognize and acknowledge that we are privileged to be living the life we do.
We can’t gallivant across the world, gloating about our lifestyle and posting all the amazing things we are able to do on social media without understanding that some people just won’t have the same opportunities as we do.
We Can Build an Ethical Digital Nomad Community Together!
The digital nomad community is new, and it is not without flaws. But, we, as digital nomads, are among the freest people on Earth and have the ability to make changes to our lifestyle where necessary. Together, we can build an ethical and sustainable path for the digital nomad lifestyle!
Ready to get started? Head over to our digital nomad visa guides to figure out which countries you can legally move to!