Log on, chill out: holiday resorts lure remote workers to fill gap left by tourists

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The Canary Islands join a growing list of destinations wooing ‘digital nomads’ to help replace business lost to the pandemic

It wasn’t the sun-drenched beaches or windswept dunes that first commanded Daniel Harry Jarociński’s attention when he arrived in the Gran Canaria town of Maspalomas. Instead, his early days in one of the Canary Islands’ most popular resorts were focused on securing a crucial aspect of his lifestyle: a speedy internet connection.

For the past nine years, the 35-year-old marketing professional has bounced across Europe for months-long stints as a “half-tourist”: spending his days working remotely and his free time exploring.

He was at home in Warsaw when the coronavirus began its sweep across the continent, watching anxiously as borders snapped shut. “I felt like I was in prison,” he said.

But soon after countries began reopening, he was on a plane to Spain, where he found the tourist town of Maspalomas half-empty.

Travellers like Jarociński have become a key focus of governments grappling with two seemingly unrelated consequences of the pandemic; the devastation wrought on global travel and the drastic changes unleashed on how we work.

From Barbados to Bermuda, officials have tried to ease the collapse in tourism by enticing confinement-weary workers with sunny beaches and a relatively cheap cost of living. As companies such as Facebook and Twitter embrace remote working, both islands have rolled out visas targeting “digital nomads” – the growing number of people who rely on laptops and wifi connections to do their job from anywhere in the world.

In the coming weeks, the Canary Islands will launch their own campaign aimed at attracting remote workers from across the EU, Yaiza Castilla, the regional official in charge of tourism told the Observer. “The coronavirus brought this market into sharp relief. It could be a huge opportunity for us to recoup tourism.”

Her government estimates that the number of tourists arriving in the islands this year could drop by as much as 66%, dealing a ruinous blow to one of Europe’s most tourism-dependent regions. Last year more than 15 million tourists visited the region, generating around 35% of its GDP and some 40% of its jobs.

Those who come for longer stays are less vulnerable to flight cancellations and delays caused by the pandemic, and they come with their own jobs – a key factor in a region where unemployment hovered at around 21% before the pandemic.

Most crucially, these travellers often spend more widely across the islands. “They don’t just go to a certain restaurant, but to the supermarket,” she said. “They go to opera festivals or they’ll book a flight and a hotel to spend the weekend visiting other islands.”

Still, as travel advisories and warnings stack up against Spain – including the current one from the UK – the region is carefully laying plans for what could be a tough sell.

Their efforts have been partly guided by the experiences of the informal remote working communities that have grown up in Gran Canaria and Tenerife in recent years, said Nacho Rodríguez, the founder of Nomad City, an annual event in the Canary Islands that focuses on remote work.

“What has changed is that now they understand what remote work really is, as they’ve been forced to work remotely themselves for months,” he said. “We’re no longer the crazy guys talking about remote work.”

Rodríguez is now pushing the regional government to broaden the appeal of its pitch by lobbying Madrid to create special visas for nationals of non-EU countries.

The palm-tree lined Mediterranean city of Valencia has also been eyeing this segment of travellers. “We have to make it more simple to come here than any other place,” said Javier Mateo of Valencia Tech City, citing a need for staff who can speak foreign languages and streamlining the process for foreigners to find longer-term accommodation, office space and open bank accounts.

The city’s keen interest, however, stems not so much from the plunge in tourist numbers but rather the lessons learned as destinations across Spain wrestle with “drunken tourism”, he said. “There are some areas, unfortunately, that have become known as places for those who just want to party,” said Mateo. “When someone comes here to work, even if it’s just for a month or two months, they become temporary neighbours, rather than tourists.”

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