Gentrification on a Global Scale

Hong Island Trip 5

The idea of being to live and work from anywhere in the world is attractive to many, who have chosen to become digital nomads and wander the world as laptop warriors. It seems like the perfect lifestyle – no rent, no commute time, the freedom to work from the beach every day, yet it does not come without some major drawbacks.

Digital nomads have the career flexibility, money, and passport power to move anywhere in the world because they choose to, whereas the majority of the world’s population does not have that option. They flock to places with lower costs of living compared to their home countries, driving up local prices despite not having a meaningful impact on the local communities, and then leave for the next destination, and the next.

In cities like in Chiang Mai and Medellín when tourism and the growing presence of digital nomads price the locals out of their homes in “trendier” neighborhoods, they just move further out from the city center, as is the case in cities across the globe. However, what happens to the locals in island destinations like Bali when digital nomads price them out of their communities? The island is only so big, but the demand for overpriced but Instagrammable acai bowls and long-term accommodation for Westerners escaping their home countries will only continue to grow as more are driven towards the digital nomad lifestyle.

Gentrification is an issue in almost every city, as wealthier individuals move to areas with a lower cost of living because it makes financial sense for them. Over time, higher-end coffee shops, restaurants, etc. slowly come in to serve them, causing property values in the neighborhood to gradually increase, pricing out the neighborhood’s original residents and forcing them to move elsewhere. Digital nomads simply represent gentrification on a global scale.

For anyone considering taking up the digital nomad lifestyle – global gentrification does not necessarily make digital nomadism a bad thing on its own. Cities inevitably change as the economy adapts. As nomads, it’s so easy to feel disconnected from these places and write off the ways that these cities are changing because we inhabit them for just a short time before moving on. However, as more and more people give up the 9-to-5 lifestyle and hit the road, it becomes increasingly important to think about how our presence impacts the local communities we visit.

Digital nomads tend to interact primarily with other expats or digital nomads when they stay in one place long-term. It’s natural to be drawn to the only other people who can speak your language when you’re in a foreign country, but it can come with a downside.

The digital nomad community often runs parallel to the local economy rather than operating as part of it, crossing dangerously close to neocolonialism as Westerners flock to warmer climates, a lower cost of living, and exotic locales. The many co-living and co-working spaces that have popped up in places like Costa Rica, Colombia, Thailand, Indonesia, and across the world allow Westerners to live in a bubble while they take advantage of these places without ever having to interact with locals.

When you go to a restaurant, are the people who work there different than the people who eat there?

Who owns the hotels and resorts where you stay? Are they owned by locals, or are they owned by American and Australian brands to cater to American and Australian customers?

When you stay in an AirBnB (the favorite long-term housing platform for many digital nomads), is it one room in a home owned by a local, or is it one of many properties operated by an AirBnB “mega host”, contributing to that host’s bottom line while inflating rent prices in the neighborhood and converting otherwise affordable housing for locals into a profit center? If all the apartments are rented out to foreigners on holiday, where are the locals supposed to live?

Is your co-working space or the infrastructure that allows you to work as a digital nomad in this country developed and run by locals, or is it developed by other digital nomads from the Western world to cater to others like themselves?

What percent of the profits make it back to the local economy, versus what gets reinvested into more infrastructure and development projects to bring the same Western standards of comfort around the world? And what are the consequences of this on the local economy, environment, and culture?

Ultimately, who benefits from the gentrification of the developing world by Western elites? The profits from a large digital nomad community benefit the urban, English-speaking population in these areas, but may not extend far beyond these communities, increasing the gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

Do digital nomads have a responsibility to support the local communities in each place they visit? Does this responsibility extend beyond simply patronizing local shops and restaurants?

There’s a difference between gentrifying your own country and gentrifying someone else’s. And there’s an even bigger difference between what a traveler or digital nomad gains from traveling the world and what they give back to it.

 

I’d love to hear what you think about the role of digital nomads in the local community and the global economy – let me know what you think below in the comments! 

 

xoxo,

Hanna (Bubu Backpacks)

16 thoughts on “Gentrification on a Global Scale

  1. It is a really difficult topic to talk about and you have done it well. I think it is important to travel sustainably and it is difficult as you don’t want to be ripped off, but you also don’t want mega airbnb hosts to take over cities. I really want to live as a digital nomad, but these are some of the issues I have wondered myself. I’d love to hear more opinions

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  2. Excellent article raising some important considerations. Much of what you say about lifestyle also applies to expats, I think. In other words, people who move overseas and stay there rather than moving around nomadically.

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  3. This is happening and I’m glad you focused on it. Very thoughtful questions and points. It’s a balancing act and while tourism can provide a higher standard of living I’ve seen too much disrespect or insensitivity to local concerns. We need to keep this conversation going.

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    1. Absolutely! It’s only going to become a larger problem as travel becomes accessible to more people. Hopefully by expanding the conversation, we can come up with some solutions on how to respect and protect local cultures and communities.

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  4. Very informative post. Because of the work I do that involves the U.S. HIPAA law, I can’t be a digital nomad. But what you say makes a lot of sense for those who choose that lifestyle. Even being in a city like Philadelphia, you see gentrification of certain areas. The sad part is , a place is trendy for a while, then it falls off and moves on to a new place, and where does that leave the people of the once gentrified place?

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    1. Such a good question. And that’s the thing – gentrification does happen everywhere, and in some respects, it’s unavoidable because cities inevitably change and evolve. But these former residents don’t just disappear when they get priced out of their homes, they just get pushed further and further out, creating greater inequality.

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  5. This is so interesting! While I’d certainly thought about it from an overall tourism standpoint, I hadn’t ever thought about the impact of digital nomads and the expat lifestyle on the local economy as well since I don’t know much about it. Thanks so much for the thoughts!

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  6. You have some really great points. I’m not a digital nomad, but I would hope digital nomads would keep this sort of thing in mind when choosing places to stay – responsible travel is so important!

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  7. Really. good post. I was just in Portugal and this is happening in a huge way. Of course not just because of digital nomads but just the popularity of the country right now. It’s pretty insane and the signs are everywhere if you care to see them.

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    1. Mass tourism is impacting these places in such a huge way. I’m heading to Portugal in the fall and it’ll be interesting to see the country during shoulder season, rather than peak tourist.

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  8. This is a very interesting post and not something that I’ve thought about yet. We hear a lot about the small “Instagrammable” spots being ruined by over-tourism but you don’t think about the economy side of things. It feels like you’re promoting local culture when really its a completely US or AUS run company. I think it would benefit all to be mindful of this and support local business as much as possible! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, interesting topic!

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    1. Thanks for your feedback! It’s something that I’ve been grappling with as I’m preparing to be on the road long-term. A lot of the infrastructure that supports nomad hubs is built by other expats, and not the local community. Like on one hand, it’s nice because all of that stuff exists already and it’s easy to go there and work, but at what cost to the local economy? Some places are doing it in a way that promotes local entrepreneurs as well, which is awesome, but there’s still a long way to go.

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