Is Bali Dead? Digital Nomad Drama with a Kernel of Truth

Is Bali Dead? Digital Nomad Drama with a Kernel of Truth
credit: Radoslav Bali / Unsplash

Over the weekend nomad-Facebook got a little heated.

A recent Business Insider post profiling Olumide Gbenro, a somewhat controversial character in the space, shared his thoughts on why Bali is not the magical place we believe it to be and described it as having "dirty and unpleasant" beaches and out-of-control pollution.

Obviously, this upset some people and launched a full-on Facebook brawl.

In the article, Gbenro also shared that for these reasons he has decided to leave Bali and is instead heading to Southern Europe which he believes to be more nomad-friendly, and the next big destination.

Now, before I go any further...

I prefer to avoid drama like the plague. In my opinion, it's an absolute energy suck, and arguing on social media 9.9 times out of 10 ends up being a waste of time.

There is also nothing that pisses me off more than seeing people and publications cover drama in the hopes of getting clicks and attention from said drama.

However... the name of this newsletter is Remote Insider because I want to provide you with the best information possible and I feel like I'd be doing you a disservice if I didn't cover this story and provide you with my point of view.

Because wrapped in the drama, there is an important conversation we need to have, and a kernel of truth... on both sides of the argument.

So, let me present my thoughts and I'll let you decide for yourself.

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Because no one likes to be an outsider...

Bali: Paradise or Not?

I've been to Bali once, for 2 weeks, and left unimpressed.

When I decided I wanted to become a digital nomad there were two places that always popped up in conversation - Chiang Mai and Bali.

These two locations became beacons of hope while I continued to work at my 9 to 5 and got my business off the ground on the weekends.

Finally, in 2018 I was able to visit both places and experience the life I had read about in blogs and heard on podcasts.

Bali and I got off on the wrong foot immediately and continued not to see eye-to-eye.

While everything I had seen of Bali on the internet was beautiful beaches and paradise, I came to find dirty beaches with water that was sometimes so polluted that surfers would get infections.

The streets lacked sidewalks and can become properly dangerous for pedestrians as motorbikes fly past you with little organization or street lighting.

Another thing that really bothered me was the influencer culture that had seeped through the popular town of Canggu. Cafes and restaurants brandished neon hashtags and seemed to be built to be shared on social media, not enjoyed in real life.

My wife and I left after 2 weeks and have never felt the pull to return.

However, this is my personal experience... being there for a short amount of time.

Bali really is an incredible place with insane natural beauty (although truly over-polluted), some of the nicest people I've ever met, and a rich cultural history.

Not to mention that Bali is not just Canggu. There are dozens of small towns without the issues of Canggu, and there is also Denpasar which has a population of nearly 1 million people if that's more your speed!

As a remote worker, Bali also had tons of places to work, from cafes (obviously sitting as far away from the neon hashtags as possible) and some of the best coworking spaces in the world. Not to mention plenty of chances to meet other nomads and network with entrepreneurs.

The question that was raised by many people in response to Olumide's post was if digital nomads are to blame for the negatives of Bali.

The Digital Nomad Paradox

In the 4-Hour Workweek, regarded by many as the digital nomad Bible, Tim Ferriss introduced us to the concept of geo-arbitrage: moving to a place where the cost of living is lower that your current home.

Or as he put it in the book - earn dollars and spend pesos.

Geo-arbitrage is a core belief for many digital nomads. It allows you to increase your quality of life, reduce your expenses if you're building a business, and in general affords you more freedom.

But does it have a negative effect on locals?

Prior to COVID-19 digital nomads were a tiny community. There were no digital nomad visas or nomad villages, and for the most part, governments didn't care about us.

But COVID-19 made remote work mainstream, and as millions of people around the world discovered they could now work from anywhere, a percentage of them decided to take that to the extreme and become nomadic.

The number of digital nomads around the world has skyrocketed!

In cities like Lisbon and Mexico City, you can now see signs that say things like "fuck digital nomads"

But why?

Digital nomads bring new money into the local economy. They rent apartments from locals, buy food at the local store, frequent local cafes, etc.

Isn't this something to be excited about?

In fact, during the pandemic digital nomads in many ways helped save the small town of Ponta do Sol in Madeira, Portugal.

The local economy was struggling heavily due to the absence of tourism, then Goncalo Hall started the Digital Nomad Village project and helped bring over €20M in revenue to the area.

When I was in Ponta do Sol earlier this year I spoke with several locals who told me they "loved digital nomads" they were happy they were there and felt like it was bringing new life to the small town.

"Would you rather deal with loud tourists or remote workers who are nicer, mostly hang out in cafes, and stay longer?" one person said to me.

Because of the growing digital nomad community in Ponta do Sol there are new businesses popping up that are employing locals. For example, this year global coworking & coliving chain Outsite opened a Ponta do Sol location.

Hotels are restructuring their offers and creating pop-up coworking places, people are launching fitness businesses for nomads, and restaurants are finding a consistent flow of customers who stay longer and order more.

In nearby Funchal, Startup Madeira in collaboration with the local university has built a giant coworking space and startup incubator. Here digital nomads are collaborating with local startups, helping improve products with their skills, or starting entirely new businesses.

So why is there such a negative reaction to digital nomads in other cities? I believe it comes down to two things...

Bad Image, and Bad City Management

I'm a digital nomad, and I love being one, but I have to admit we're easy to hate sometimes...

All communities have bad apples, and of course, they are the loudest. They come to new locations snapping pictures and talking a big game.

They complain about the way things are run there before they have a chance to get to know the place and pollute Instagram feeds with pictures of them working from laptops, or posing on beaches with their abs flashing.

Of course, after that they go back to their studio apartment to post those pictures, because you know... the pool WiFi actually sucks.

However, the biggest reason some people dislike digital nomads is that they think nomads raise the local cost of living, mainly rent.

And there is some truth to that.

If more digital nomads come to an area and rent from platforms like Airbnb where they pay a premium, then landlords are incentivized to convert their properties to short-term rentals.

This decreases the supply of long-term rental properties driving the cost up.

A city that understands this problem all too well is Lisbon, where the past year has seen numerous protests against the rising cost of living.

During one of those protests, Portuguese housing rights activist Rita Silva had an insightful comment.

Silva doesn’t blame the young freelancers and tech entrepreneurs who have made Lisbon one of the most popular European destinations for digital nomads, instead she believes the local government is responsible for not properly responding to the influx of remote workers.

Digital nomads are a sign of a quickly globalizing world. Despite what you may hear on some news channels, globalization is alive and well.

In 2022 we saw record levels of cross-border mobility and that will only increase because as remote work grows, mobility naturally increases.

It's up to city leaders to come up with laws and programs that work for both locals and digital nomads. There are lots of things that can be done:

  • Allow communities to decide whether they allow Airbnb rentals or not
  • Set up tax incentives for landlords that keep long-term rentals
  • Create a robust mid-term rental sector
  • Above all, build more housing

Then there are education and local programs.

According to Goncalo, one of the big reasons why digital nomads and locals live so harmoniously in Ponta do Sol, is that a lot of work was done before the first nomad stepped foot in the city.

He went from local business to local business explaining what a digital nomad was and what sort of products or services they can set up to benefit from the nomads. He spoke with local leaders on what programs they needed to set up in order to both attract nomads and protect locals.

Now he has done the same in multiple places including Cabo Verde and Pipa, Brazil.

Hopefully, with time and good city leadership, we will see more programs like these that can help communities benefit from digital nomads, while safeguarding from the negatives.

Community > Geo-arbitrage

In the Business Insider article that caused all this commotion, Olumide says that "geographic arbitrage is what drives digital nomads" and that southern Europe is now the best place for nomads.

And I have problems with both of these...

Sure, geo-arbitrage is an important part of why a digital nomad chooses to go somewhere, but I think far more important are the quality of life and community.

For example, if geo-arbitrage is all that drove me, I would go to Kyrgyzstan where the cost of living is over 60% lower than in the US, but I won't do that because my quality of life would be lower.

Nothing against Kyrgyzstan, from everything I've seen on the internet it looks like a beautiful country, but I prefer to spend time in places where there is nice weather year-round, international food, well-connected airports, and above all people I can hang out with and network with, AKA community.

And I think Olumide would agree with this.

When I messaged Olumide telling him that I would be writing this article and offered him a chance to comment, he told me that while he stood by his statements in the article, Business Insider didn't publish his comment that he left Bali above all because "the quality of life is not good for what Bali offers" not necessarily because it became too expensive.

As digital nomads, we can easily travel to new locations, and I've been amazed at how quickly people will move to a new spot because they hear the community there is awesome. I saw it happen in Bansko, Bulgaria, then Ponta do Sol, and now in Pipa, Brazil.

In today's well-developed digital economy, community is the most important thing, not saving a few bucks.

Nomads are willing to pay a premium (while still saving money compared to living in the US) to have the quality they like and a strong community.

Is Southern Europe The Next Digital Nomad Hotspot

Reading the comments under Olumide's Facebook post one of the most common sentiments was that people felt he was complaining about problems he helped create.

And I understand where they're coming from...

According to the article, Olumide moved to Bali in 2019, and since then has promoted Bali as THE place for digital nomads. He has launched several projects trying to popularize the location and even tried to help facilitate a digital nomad visa.

Indonesia does offer a digital nomad visa today, although I don't know how much he had to do with it.

Now he has announced that Southern Europe is the best new location for digital nomads... and it does feel a bit like deja vu.

I grew up in Varna, Bulgaria, and I do agree that Southern Europe is a great place for digital nomads. In fact, I started the Varna Digital Nomads Facebook group back in 2017.

However, I think as a community we need to stop saying "this is the best place for digital nomads" because as we've grown as a community we've also matured.

Digital nomads are now a diverse group.

Some are just getting started and looking for the cheapest location possible. Others are growing businesses and are looking for a great place to network with other entrepreneurs, and another fast-growing sub-group is digital nomads with kids who are looking for a place that is above all, family-friendly.

We can't pretend that one place can be the best for all of these people.

For some, the culture and community of Bali is the perfect place, for others, the family friendliness of Southern Europe or the US Mideswest may be unrivaled, and a third group just want to be able to go from ski slopes to working in less than 10 minutes and thus love Bansko.

To wrap up this long post, while I don't know Olumide very well outside of a few conversations here and there online, and I don't know if he had ulterior motives for the article as some have suggested...

I do think we need to have a bigger conversation about how we help cities create initiatives that make them both attractive for digital nomads and a place that locals can still comfortably call home.