The Great Remote Tribe of Nomadic Lifestyle

A similar trend is unfolding at Laguna Phuket, an integrated resort home to seven hotels. Managing director Ravi Chandran is observing more “youngish, tech-savvy” guests working from their suites or the communal areas. A greater portion of guests are combining a resort stay with work, with some even staying up to 60-90 days, he told us.

This new type of guest is becoming increasingly common on Thailand’s largest island and popular tourist destination since the launch of the Phuket Sandbox on 1 July, according to both hoteliers. The Phuket Sandbox is a pilot initiative by the Thai government to open up the country to vaccinated tourists. Travellers don’t need to quarantine on arrival, but must stay in Phuket for a minimum of 14 days.

Both Hindmarch and Chandran are now staring in the face of an emerging market that’s a hybrid between two-week vacationers and long-term expats— digital nomads. They make up around 15-20% of SIS Kata’s Sandbox guests, Hindmarch estimated. “These digital nomads found us and came to us, without us knowing them,” he said.

Digital nomads are hardly a novel phenomenon, but the pandemic has turbocharged the fast-growing migrant worker trend of the digital era.

When Covid-19 forced employers to go remote, it also opened up the possibility of a nomadic lifestyle to more people. No longer bound to their office or desk, more independent workers are embracing an itinerant, technology-enabled lifestyle that allows them to work from anywhere.

Late to the digital nomad party, Thailand’s Phuket plays catch up

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report, 84% of employers have plans to rapidly digitalise their working processes. There’s a potential to get 44% of their workforce to operate remotely. In the US, 15.5 million people describe themselves as digital nomads, up by 112% from 2019, according to the 2021 State of Independence research study by MBO Partners, a job platform connecting freelancers with enterprises.

There’s no official data on digital nomads in Southeast Asia, but Thailand and Indonesia are consistently ranked among the preferred destinations. The two countries draw remote workers from around the world thanks to reliable internet, good weather, and a low cost of living.

That’s not to say life’s always a beach for digital nomads in Southeast Asia. Covid-induced travel restrictions pose new challenges while crossing borders. And in Thailand, there’s also ambiguity over their tax and legal status to work in the country. 

Some tourism-dependent European countries like Portugal, Iceland, Croatia, and Estonia already grant visas to digital nomads; Dubai and Mexico have also rolled out similar initiatives for remote workers. But in Southeast Asia, there’s no such programme yet.

Thailand has to act fast if it wishes to keep up with global competition for digital nomads. After all, it’s a community that’s estimated to be worth $787 billion in economic value each year.

A sandbox for remote work

The Phuket Sandbox ignited interest in Thailand as a digital nomad destination, at a time when most Southeast Asian countries remain sealed off to tourism.

But before it was launched in July, another initiative by the Thai government last year paved the way for its success. In October 2020, in an attempt to boost tourism during the Covid slump, Thailand launched a Special Tourist Visa (STV), which permits visitors to stay in the country for up to 270 days.

That said, the Sandbox scheme fell short of its target of 100,000 visitors for the quarter ended September 2021—by more than 60,000. Of the 38,699 international arrivals in Thailand via the scheme till September, a significant number were either Thai travellers or foreign visitors with family or work connections in Thailand, industry members told us.