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Digital nomads: Putting ideas into practice in a Portuguese village

The Plumia project advocates creating a virtual country for expatriate teleworkers. During the pandemic, a small fishing town in Ponta do Sol hosted a small community of them, but they have had a fraught relationship with locals

Panoramic view of Ponta do Sol, in Madeira, where a small colony of digital nomads has settled
Panoramic view of Ponta do Sol, in Madeira, where a small colony of digital nomads has settled (as digital is, obviously, the technopirate flag on the mountain)Getty Images / Juan Francisco Fernández (
Miquel Echarri

Today’s digital nomads require special treatment. That is the conclusion reached by Dave Cook, a British anthropologist and writer who has spent the last seven years documenting the evolution of this peculiar urban tribe, to which Cook once felt he belonged.

In 2015, Cook went to Bangkok, Thailand, to attend one of the first international summits of the then-new breed of nomads. There, he came into contact with a collective of open-minded, restless and shrewd millennials who were determined to take the world by storm. They were mostly men who “dressed in Bermuda shorts and nautical polo shirts” and always toted their laptops around in backpacks. They looked like the young attendees at a Silicon Valley corporate meeting in the lobby of a Florida hotel and had nothing of the hippie aesthetics usually associated with backpackers.

Listening to presentations by the incipient movement’s leaders, gurus like Fabian Dittrich and Marcus Meurer, Cook found it fascinating that they saw themselves as the drivers of a kind of pragmatic revolution. They did not aspire to overthrow global capitalism but rather to work for it from a comfortable distance. They sought accommodations on the margins, in tropical paradises and unknown corners of the world, where they could still live in a free, relaxed and “authentic” way without sacrificing immense wealth from investing in cryptocurrency or designing artificial intelligence neural networks. Their life’s project consisted of staying closely connected to the system so they could disconnect from it.

Then and now

According to Cook, the pandemic “democratized and trivialized the concept.” At least in the popular perception, that first wave of technological and visionary nomads who felt that they were the heirs to precursors like Steve Roberts (who, in the early 1980s, toured the United States designing avant-garde software from the seat of his computerized bicycle) were confused with neo-ruralists, supporters of the Great Renunciation and recent converts to the religion of telework.

Sunset over Ponta do Sol, Madeira Island (Portugal)
Sunset over Ponta do Sol, on Portugal’s island of Madeira.MATHEISL (Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic also provided an ideal situation for the movement’s plans for global domination. Through a system of visas and tax exemptions, countries such as Estonia, Portugal, Greece and Barbados began to actively court digital nomads – i.e., young, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan talent with relatively high purchasing power. In theory, cheap rents and optimal internet connections were enough to prompt these new torchbearers of gentrification to settle in picturesque but degraded neighborhoods and godforsaken rural environments, which, in turn, would help regenerate such areas and bring them into the virtuous cycle of rampant modernity.

Websites like Nomad List began to offer up-to-the-minute rankings of the best destinations for digital nomads, and the not-so-incipient tribe became part of the everyday landscape of poor neighborhoods in Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Timisoara, Berlin, Cape Town, Istanbul, Manila, Perth, Warsaw, Nairobi and Belgrade. The more intrepid nomads took their logic of extreme disconnection to less crowded places, such as the beaches of Bali, Croatia, Fuerteventura and the Algarve; the plateaus of Nepal; and the jungles of the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand and the Mexican Caribbean.

Plumia, a nomadic homeland

As scholar Daniel Schlagwein explains in his comprehensive book The History of Digital Nomadism, there’s another novelty in the digital nomad movement. Far from renouncing its ambition, the tribe – as opposed to tourists, backpackers, pandemic refugees and regular expatriates – has radicalized its project. Now more than ever, it aspires to change the world by traveling it from end to end.

The Plumia project – which, according to Lauren Razavi, one of its main promoters, seeks to create “a virtual homeland” for laptop nomads – is proof of this radicalization. According to Razavi, “The nation state is outdated – it’s based on 19th-century thinking, and we aim to upend all of that.” For well over a century, nation-states have fulfilled their function of providing legal and identity protections for the globalizing world; now, she contends, the time has come to “store them in the cloud or send them to the dust bin of history.”

Shopping street in Chiang Mai, Thailand
A shopping street in Chiang Mai, Thailand, another paradise for digital nomads that offers spectacular scenery and low prices.simonlong (Getty Images)

The tribe that Razavi believes she represents “does not need borders, passports or citizenship rights.” The British nationality that she herself possesses – which has allowed her to travel the world without restrictions – seems unnecessary to her. “We’re all enrolled into this automatic subscription based on the coincidence of our birthplace or our heritage, and that really doesn’t work in the 21st century.” Hence, she proposed – not completely frivolously, but also not entirely seriously – that the United Nations recognize Plumia as “a sovereign online state” with open nationality for all digital nomads who request it; in other words, it is for those who choose to renounce their nationalities of origin to embrace the utopia of living in a world of permeable, flexible borders.

Expatriate luxury in Madeira

In a Wired article, journalist Susana Ferreira masterfully documented the experiences of digital nomads and locals in a Portuguese town on the southern coast of the island of Madeira, which became a colony of the stateless metropole that Plumia aspires to become.

Funchal, Ponta do Sol, is neither a remote wasteland disconnected from the world nor a demographic desert. It is located between Canhas and Tabua, in the warmest part of the island, and it is close to tourist attractions such as Ribeira Brava and Câmara de Lobos as well as the capital. Funchal has 8,125 inhabitants (about 5,000 of them live in the town itself and the rest in the surrounding hamlets); an agricultural, fishing and commercial economy; irrigation canals; waterfalls; beautiful beaches; and a small but active port. However, since arriving, the community of digital nomads that settled there during the pandemic, at the initiative of Portuguese entrepreneur Gonçalo Hall, has lived in isolation from the rest of the town. The expatriates are entrenched in their coworking spaces and the string of ocean-side homes that the community has bought or rented, and they’ve had minimal contact with the local population.

In September 2020, Hall, who grew up in the Lisbon neighborhood of Lapa, requested an interview with the president of Madeira’s regional government, Miguel Albuquerque, to propose setting up a nomadic community in Ponta do Sol that was similar to what he had seen in such communities in Thailand (Chiang Mai) and Indonesia (Canggu). As Hall told Ferreira, it only took “a couple of beers” to reach an agreement and establish a pilot program of “selective immigration” in the area, a community of expatriate entrepreneurs that Hall and StartMadeira, the local technology project incubator, would manage.

A woman works on her dresser at Villingili beach in the Maldives
A woman works on her computer at Villingili beach in the Maldives.EyesWideOpen (Getty Images)

Nomadism on the shores of the Atlantic (and away from locals)

Mainland Portugal had already given the green light to similar pilot projects in Porto, Portimão and the Tagus estuary, so it was only a matter of time before the tribe of digital nomads arrived on one of the Portuguese islands. Madeira was the obvious choice because of its proximity to the mainland, beauty, rich social fabric and infrastructure. When the new residential community, Digital Nomad Village, launched in February 2021, it had just five residents: Gonçalo Hall and four others.

Today, the Village has several hundred inhabitants. They are mostly young or about to enter middle age. By the standards of their countries of origin (Germany, United Kingdom, United States...), they are not immensely wealthy, but they have the means to rent properties for between 1,000 and 2,000 dollars per month on an island where the minimum wage does not exceed 800 dollars and where more than 5,000 families are on waiting lists for subsidized housing.

Project managers believe that Ponta do Sol offers “a space designed specifically for remote employees and freelancers from around the world to live and work in a setting that suits their community and needs.” But Ferreira has gathered multiple testimonials from Village residents who expressed a veiled dissatisfaction with the place to which they have come seeking a different life. They are bored; they live as if they’d just landed on a foreign planet, the codes of which they do not understand; they have barely learned any Portuguese; and they try to have some semblance of a social life by inviting each other to beach parties on private messaging channels like Slack.

Aerial view of Ponta do Sol, Madeira, where a group of digital nomads have settled
An aerial view of Ponta do Sol, Madeira, where a group of digital nomads have settled. Roberto Moiola (Getty Images)

The digital nomads have a fraught relationship with locals. One Ponta do Sol resident refers to them as “genital nomads” because, apparently, their arrival in this corner of the island has triggered activity on Tinder. The schedule for buses to Funchal is the most frequent search on local forums.

Melissa Cabral is one of the few local residents who works for the expat community (she met some of them at a Village café and started a conversation out of curiosity and to practice her English; months later, she was offered a part-time job as a community manager in the Village). Even she acknowledges that they live in isolation from the rest of Ponta do Sol because “their lifestyle is very different from ours.” They don’t “really [feel] at home”; therefore, they tend to retreat and stay disconnected from the village. In the medium term, many of the expats will likely end up leaving the island; that is consistent with the philosophy of digital nomadism, which consists of accumulating experiences and not putting down roots.

Please don’t go

Despite all the complaints, however, the town’s inhabitants do not want the digital nomads to leave. In an environment where young people flee as soon as they are old enough to seek better career prospects in mainland Portugal or abroad, a new community of residents offers promise for the future, which is hard to give up. Still, many reproach Ponta do Sol’s new residents for their unwillingness (or inability) to adapt, as well as for their role in making housing prices less affordable for locals.

Sources at StartUp Madeira point out that digital nomads contribute around €1.7 million a month to the local economy. But Ferreira argues that this amount is a ridiculously small fraction of what ordinary immigrants pay to social security. Moreover, she notes that many of these immigrants – who were “born in Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Nepal, Bangladesh or Venezuela” – have not been given the red-carpet treatment, tailor-made communities are not created for them, and they do not receive tax exemptions or preferential visas.

Seven years have gone by since David Cook went to Bangkok and identified the emerging tribe of young nomads who were going to take the world by storm. But instead of representing a groundbreaking new way of inhabiting the planet and dissolving its sclerotic borders, digital nomadism is still an exclusive club made up of a select elite that travels the planet asking for special treatment, perhaps without even realizing it.

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