Digital nomads find opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic, and adjust to living in one place rather than travelling
- A Parisian devised digital advertising strategies from Malaysia, while a freelancer stranded in Vietnam taught English online and covered the US election
- Adaptable by necessity, digital nomads may be the best equipped to work remotely and navigate newly fragile employment and freelance markets
Hannah Maussang worked in commercial advertising for five years before setting out to see the world. “I arrived in Malaysia in February,” says the Parisian. “I was going to travel around Southeast Asia before heading to Nepal, India, Bali and then on to South America.”
While stuck in a hostel on the holiday island of Langkawi, Maussang realised Anne Hallaert, a lockdown buddy and freelance translator from Belgium, was continuing to work by sourcing jobs via websites such as Upwork.
“I saw Anne and other friends making money throughout the MCO while I was doing nothing except spending my savings,” Maussang recalls.
Unwilling to go back to France, where many of her colleagues were losing their jobs, Maussang watched an online seminar about digital nomadism and decided to explore the possibilities. “At first, I was scared,” she says. “I know I have the skills, but I needed clients.”
Instead of reaching out to the multinationals that she had previously worked with, Maussang turned to independent companies that produce zero-waste or ethnic products. She made her approaches on Facebook and Instagram and secured contracts to devise digital advertising strategies for two companies.
And just like that, Maussang became a digital nomad, joining a growing tribe that – though hamstrung by the pandemic-related shutdown in global travel – is uniquely equipped to take advantage of the opportunities these unpredictable times are offering up.
“Travellers in general – and digital nomads in particular – have always known that adaptation and improvisation are central to making sense of daily life on the road,” says Rolf Potts, author of the book Vagabonding; An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.
“They are facing new challenges amid these new pandemic norms – but then so is everyone, and I think travel-savvy workers will naturally be well equipped to adapt and improvise to make the most of the pandemic and post-pandemic world.”
British travel writer Rosie Bell is another who has had her life upended by pandemic travel restrictions.
“2020 looks a whole lot different than what I had planned,” she says from a chilly London. Her general aim is “to stay as far away from winter as possible”.
Bell became a full-time wanderer in 2015 when she visited the Caribbean coast of Panama.
“After tasting the sweet nectar of freedom, I knew I could never go back to the status quo. I think the widely adopted ‘five days on, two days off’ model of work in an office has failed many, and the rise of the digital nomad is testament to this.”
Her subsequent travels have taken her everywhere from Brazil to Bali and Barcelona, but that “sweet nectar” dried up this spring.
“I landed in Argentina in March for a series of travel writing assignments, and then the entire country locked down a few days later. I was stuck in Buenos Aires for nearly three months before being repatriated to the UK.”
Bell used those three months wisely, though, developing a Travel Writing 101 course for skillshare.com while sequestered on her balcony in Buenos Aires.
Not everyone has found their way home yet. Southeast Asia – which, like Central America, is well trodden by wandering web workers – has more than its fair share of digital nomads waiting for borders to open while making the best of their temporary homes.
In 2019, freelancer Bryan Myers visited 12 countries. Since January Myers, who is from the US state of New Jersey, has seen just one, Vietnam.
Business, Myers admits, has been “volatile”, although he doesn’t regret seeing out the storm in the coastal city of Da Nang, where he has sustained himself by teaching English through Cambly.com (primarily to mainland Chinese students, many of whom have seen their flesh-and-blood foreign language teachers shut out of China) and writing for websites such as MyWorldAbroad, Study.com and small fiction titles.
He has also been covering this year’s US election for a company called Born Again Media. “I’ve published through their subsidiary, which is a gambling website called Safest Betting Sites.
“Even though the second wave [of Covid-19] happened in Da Nang, it was quickly kept under control with the closures of non-essential businesses and heavy travel restrictions. Living in Da Nang has allowed me time to do creative things on the side like playing music, painting and creative writing. I’ve had plenty of ups and downs but there’s more turmoil and social unrest in America,” says Myers.
Breanna Wilson had to think quickly when the pandemic began to bite.
“I was in Mongolia, where I was supposed to be living for the summer,” says the writer/photographer/digital marketer. “I flew from Mongolia in March in an attempt to travel to Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, to photograph a tour. As soon as I left, Mongolia announced they were closing their borders, despite having zero internal cases. So I was locked out and now stranded in Istanbul, as Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan were having issues of their own with the pandemic.
“It was a decision I had to make almost immediately – stay in Istanbul or go somewhere else. Georgia is a 1.5-hour flight from Istanbul and I knew, coming here, I at least had some friends and knew [Tbilisi, the capital], should things get really bad,” says Wilson. “I was on a plane the next day.”
“Georgia has handled the crisis very well. They were quick locking down areas with high infection rates, putting a curfew in place and making hotels and restaurants go through strict health inspections to help prevent the spread of the virus. The infection rate has spiked recently, with more than 1,000 cases being reported a day, but the country is still functioning relatively normally.”
Despite business prospects initially turning “bleak”, she says, Wilson transformed the crisis into an opportunity by starting a website, meanwhileingeorgia.com, a comprehensive travel resource for a small country that’s rapidly becoming a big destination.
The former Soviet republic is positioning itself as a hotspot for digital nomads, with a Remotely from Georgia programme targeting “nomads from 95 countries to travel to Georgia and work remotely in a time when much of the world is choosing to keep their borders closed”, says Wilson.
“If anything, the pandemic has probably accelerated digital nomadism,” says Bell. “We are now palpably aware of our fragility and the need to find pleasure in everyday life, and it’s much easier to do that when you like where you are in the first place,” she explains.
“Since short-term travel has become increasingly complicated, with quarantine periods and flip-flopping travel corridors, long-term visitors who can import their work lives with them are a safer bet.
“Before the pandemic, many touted remote working as the future of work; I think that future has arrived,” says Bell.
“The pandemic has shown that a lot of work, in a lot of different disciplines, can be done remotely,” says Potts. “Digital nomads have already mastered the skills and rhythms of remote work, in a way that makes them uniquely positioned to take advantage of things right now.”