Inside the secret world of the digital nomads

Five hundred and fifty people are gathered in a conference theater in Bansko, a ski resort town 150km southwest of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. This isn’t an away-day for HR representatives, but Nomad Fest, a work meet-up for digital nomads, the burgeoning breed of freedom-seeking remote worker-hipsters who move around the globe and work from their laptops, preferably beachside or from some up-and-coming, low-priced urban hub. Presumably the word “Fest” is to make the nomads feel at home in what otherwise amounts to a corporate event to hone your skill set.

These digital nomads, from 41 countries, are supposed to have shunned the dullness and strictures of corporate life so they can follow their technology-enabled dreams. But, instead of firing up their Zoom calls from a Bali beach, or a Barcelona rooftop bar where they pay for beer with Bitcoin, they’re here to, err, attend talks on how to be better at their jobs. So far, so not very nomadic. So far, so very HR.

There are 35 million of these digital nomads worldwide, a figure projected to reach more than 1 billion by 2035. Two years of closed borders due to Covid and an increased increase in remote working has significantly itchiness of foot among under-45s, making a Nepalese mountain as viable a workspace as the office desks they’ve turned their backs on. Accelerated by the pandemic, many fledgling remote workers have failed to Lisbon – declared the best place globally to be a digital nomad, according to recent research from the Instant Group (which cited the city’s 7,000 wi-fi spots as part of the appeal).

Nomad Fest’s organiser, Matthias Zeitler, moved to Bansko from Salzburg seven years ago. When he first suggested rural Bulgaria to remote-working friends, “everyone was like, ‘you must be totally crazy’,” admits the 45-year-old, who runs four co-working spaces (stocked with free coffee and oat milk, naturally) across the town. He is determined to make Bansko “the nomad capital of the world”, luring in remote workers with the promise of low rent (£175 per month, or £26,000 to buy a property), a 10 per cent tax rate, and the chance to ski on your lunch break. It seems to be working: the event has grown fivefold since it started in 2020, and is sold out.

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