This has been the year a virus shut down our globalized lives. In the first half of 2020, governments around the world imposed entry restrictions or strict quarantine procedures; flight traffic fell to its lowest level in decades. Many are confined not just to their countries, but also to their homes, as offices were shut down along with travel.
But even as the pandemic continues to rage, the government of Barbados, a country in the eastern Caribbean, is sending a very different message: Come here, not just for a holiday, but for up to a year. Bring your laptop. Soak up the sun, the sea, the sand — and forget about the coronavirus.
“COVID-19 has placed a severe strain on people’s mental wellness,” Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley told The Washington Post. “The sunshine is powerful. The seawater is powerful. They’re both therapeutic in ways that are hard to explain. And we felt that, why not share it?”
Dubbed the “Barbados Welcome Stamp” and launching this week, the program will allow visitors to stay on the Caribbean island visa-free for up to one year. The aim is to attract remote workers, with a bill to be introduced in Parliament by the government that will remove the local income taxes that normally kick in after six months.
The program has unsurprisingly sparked global interest. Considered from a cramped apartment in London or New York, working remotely on a beach has an appeal even to those who know little about Barbados.
“And those who don’t know Barbados know Rihanna,” Mottley said, alluding to the fact that the international pop star was born on the island.
Barbados is not the only country trying to open up to laptop-toting foreigners. Estonia is to launch its own long-awaited “Digital Nomad” visa program in the coming months, and countries including Georgia, Germany and Costa Rica already have visa programs geared toward freelancers.
With email, video chatting and cloud computing, there may no longer be a reason for many workers to travel to a centralized office every day. There has also been a concurrent trend toward freelancing; polls say many freelancers have little interest in office-working life anymore.
Though the coronavirus has disrupted many aspects of our work lives, it may accelerate some trends. Gallup polling of Americans conducted this spring found that 62 percent said they had worked remotely at some point by April, an increase from 31 percent in mid-March.
“In the last six months, we all became digital, but I don’t know how much we are nomads,” said Armand Arton, founder of the consulting firm Arton Capital. “Yes, we can work from home, but we can’t really travel. What is home becomes the question.”
Arton Capital advises wealthy individuals on citizenship and residency programs around the world. Arton says there has been a surge in interest in such services since the pandemic, in part because the traditional freedom that comes with a Western citizenship, such as the once “almighty” U.S. passport, has been undermined.
The number of applications for Portugal’s “golden visa” program — which allows residency in return for a real estate investment of $570,000 — in May 2020 was almost triple what it was the year before, according to data compiled by Arton Capital.
Estonian officials have seen a surge in applications for “e-residency,” a plan that targets entrepreneurs who can set up businesses virtually in the country. “Clearly, once the borders open, highly mobile entrepreneurs and employees are likely to look for more work/business opportunities,” Katrin Vaga, head of publicity for the program, wrote in an email.
“Mobility will be the only way to get out from the economic recession,” Arton said.
Not all workers are mobile, of course. The ability to work remotely was limited to fewer than 1 in 10 civilian workers in the United States last year, most of them highly paid, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But if the choice to work remotely is one just for the wealthy elite, the decision to open borders to remote workers affects far more of the world. That a small, middle-income nation such as Barbados is seeking to attract remote workers is a reflection of the impact that the coronavirus has had.
Economic forecasts for Barbados this year are “rough, rough, rough,” Mottley said, with unemployment tripling since March, even though the country of more than 280,000 people has had fewer than 100 cases of the novel coronavirus and seven deaths — a fraction of the cases in the rest of the Americas or Europe.
“We’ve regrettably had more Barbadians die in New York, in the United States of America, then we’ve had here,” Mottley said.
Barbados’s status as a small island nation helped it avoid the worst of the pandemic. But it has felt the economic impact. The tourism industry, which may have indirectly accounted for 40 percent of gross domestic product, has been devastated.
Meanwhile, the country struggled to get access to coronavirus tests and ventilators early in the outbreak.
The island is welcoming tourists again, albeit with strict requirements on isolation and testing: The Canadian rapper Drake was spotted on the island this week, hanging around Rihanna’s childhood home. And the country has teamed up with other Caribbean nations to secure World Bank financing and personal protective equipment.
But Barbados is emphasizing longer-term stays over short-term tourism, aware that the former brings many of the same economic benefits with fewer pandemic risks.
For Barbados, the pandemic does not mean the end of globalization. Indeed, it may suggest the start of some deeper form of it.
Mottley hopes to attract more permanent immigration, pointing to Canada as an example of “a country that was severely underpopulated and [became] a place where others can find a home, but also add significant value to the country.”
Other Caribbean nations may well follow suit. “There is a trend here,” Arton said. “And the smaller the country, the faster they can turn around and take such a decision.”