With an uptick in digital nomad lifestyles and coworking tourism, how are digital nomads positively or negatively impacting the world?
Birds sing melodically against the white-washed backdrop on a sunny Greek isle as Travis King shares, over Zoom, how his passion for purposeful travel evolved into his role. King collaboratively runs social impact projects across the globe at the digital nomad program, Remote Year.
“I fell in love with the world and the way we can connect with new people and cultures,” King says. For close to five years, he did everything - from working on an Alaskan fishing boat to attaining a one year work VISA in Australia in order to extend the adventure.
“I kept working and volunteering and realized I wanted more,” King says.
When King started out as a Remote Year Program Leader, he found the group he led shared a deep interest in doing good. Each Remote Year community is a group of digital nomads that will stay together throughout the year, sharing experiences, lodging, and coworking spaces in 12 different cities around the world.
“My community’s identity was connected to giving back. We made a commitment - every month we would do one big service event in each new city.”
Digital nomads, defined as people who choose to embrace a location-agnostic, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to travel and work remotely globally are increasing in numbers, according to MBO Partner's research. As of 2019, 4.8 million remote workers currently describe themselves as digital nomads, and upwards of 17 million aspire to someday become nomadic.
“I think we’re on the tipping point of this cloud-based revolution where most laptops can connect to the internet anywhere - it gives us ultimate freedom,” King says.
As location-agnostic lifestyles continue to grow, how are digital nomads positively or negatively impacting the places they travel and how are these programs addressing social and environmental impact?
Making an impact is in the fabric of Remote Year, according to King, but it began as one-off projects that lacked sustainable results. “The early groups were doing great things with intention and heart - but everything was scattered,” King says.
According to King, one group would go to Buenos Aires, Argentina and plant trees in the mangroves and the next group would find an orphanage to sponsor in Cambodia, while another group would paint families’ homes outside of Medellín, Colombia.
“We realized if we connect the efforts, our impact overtime will be magnified,” King says.
“A lot of problems with social and environmental impact programs are it’s a one time experience and then you’re gone,” says recent Remote Year participant, Rebecca Stone.
“The cool thing about Remote Year is my group could start working on a project, and when we left at the end of the month, there’s a new group that came to take our place,” says Stone.
Stone completed first-hand reporting and travel industry data for Skift during her Remote Year. Like the 40 others in her group, she didn’t want to put her career on hold to travel the world. Remote Year took care of the infrastructure so she could pursue her other interests, including studying tourist impact on cities.
Since Remote Year runs several long-term programs, new groups arrive on a rotating basis to the same 12 to 15 cities, which, according to Stone, mitigates unnecessary negative tourism impact. “I’m in a city like Split, Croatia for one month. I don’t take jobs away from locals. All I do is add my income into the city via eating out, participating in activities, volunteering, all while knowing my tourism dollars are going into the city.”
Now, Remote Year impact projects focus on long-term partnerships. These partnerships touch on a diverse array of social issues. “You’ll get to see a different layer of each city you wouldn’t necessarily be exposed to,” says King about those who get involved.
With a rise in volunteering while traveling among digital nomads, some argue that this can do more harm than good. Medium contributor, Paris Marx writes in an article, “Digital nomads are far less likely to work toward positive local change or halt the gentrification that displaces long-term residents .”
When asked whether he thinks this is changing, Marx responds, “there are some people trying to ‘give back’ in various ways, but the people taking part in these programs don't actually spend much time in these cities. They consume them; they don't live in them.”
When asked about the criticism of volunteering abroad, King responds, “My biggest concern is that the conversation has gone too far and people would do nothing than do something, because they worry it may be considered hurtful.” He sees this as a hurdle and encourages people to always research viable organizations and causes to put energy and funding toward while traveling.
As of 2019, Remote Year communities have volunteered 14,842 hours, worked on 312 service projects and fundraisers, raised $134,390 and engaged 2,063 locals in their efforts.
With an uptick in coworking tourism, companies like Remote Year, Unsettled, Venture with Impact, and Nomad Cruise are growing rapidly as more people seek innovative ways to take their profession on the road.
“I would love to see our net cast wider to people of a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds so everyone has an opportunity to be part of Remote Year,” says King. He shares his last stories from Valencia, Spain where they are launching a new program to help nomadic communities preserve and share their arts with the larger Spanish population.
Lasting impact is challenging to measure. According to Marx, real impact abroad “means getting politically involved in one's community to fight for and enact social change in the interests of working-class people. There is hope for positive change but digital nomadism isn't a vehicle for broad-based political action.”
While some people, like Marx, believe digital nomads are a highly individualized group of privileged Westerners who make little positive impact on local communities, others, like King, believe in a broader approach to giving back.
A traveler who can explore and live in new countries and cultures has a unique opportunity. Some will give back, while others may not.
In the end, whatever one is seeking abroad, an excellent way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
JULIA KRAMER is a New York-based writer and avid traveler who addresses systems changes to social challenges through storytelling and community building. When she’s not writing or on the road, you will find her cooking something from her urban garden or hiking. Read more of her articles on travel and social impact at julia-roos.com.