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Digital Nomads

By David Haldane

March 18, 2024



I should have been there.

Billed as the Philippine’s first Digital Nomad Summit scheduled on Siargao Island last June, it was aimed at displaying the country’s overwhelming charms to a burgeoning class of foreign online workers looking to live abroad.

I’d been invited to speak for two reasons. First, I was a digital nomad myself. And second, I had just published a book extolling the virtues of expat life in the Philippines.

“We’re all accustomed to hearing stories of Filipinos going abroad to seek their fortunes,” I’d told audiences in Manila, Cebu, Iloilo, and Surigao. “Well, my book is about a foreigner coming to the Philippines to find his fortune here. We’re calling it a reverse diaspora.”

That comment always drew smiles and nods. But then the nomad summit got postponed without warning or explanation. And by the time it finally took place in October, I had temporarily left the country myself.

I was reminded of all this by a recent study purporting to list the world’s 10 top spots for digital nomads. What attracted my attention, ironically, wasn’t what it said, but what it didn’t. Glaringly absent was any mention of Siargao or, for that matter, even the Philippines.

“Spain takes the top three cities for nomads,” concluded the study, conducted by a Florida-based company called DesignRush. Why? Because of their “healthcare system and mobility standards,” the authors wrote. The list also named three cities in Italy, two in Thailand, and one each in Portugal and Greece. “As the world embraces the digital nomad lifestyle,” the study gushed, “finding the perfect place to celebrate…while not missing out on work becomes a delightful challenge.”

All of which begs the question, of course, of why not the Philippines? It’s certainly not for lack of trying.

In 2022, the country’s digital economy grew by 11 percent from the previous year to P2.08 trillion, contributing 9.4 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. And last year those numbers were expected to grow even more.

“While migration is traditionally the go-to way to leave (in order to live),” Kay Calpo Lugtu wrote in this newspaper last year, “we are seeing more and more countries transform [their ways] of welcoming foreigners.” She’s the CEO of Hungry Workhorse, a Philippine company dedicated, she says, to “digital and culture transformation.”

Indeed, an online publication called A Complete Digital Nomad Philippines Guide praises the country’s beautiful landscapes, outdoor activities, affordability, diverse cuisine, nightlife, and hospitable culture. Another one entitled How to Become a Digital Nomad in the Philippines lists its 9 top nomadic locations as Manila, Cebu, Davao, Siargao, Palawan, Boracay, General Santos, Baguio, and La Union.

Historically, two major drawbacks have undermined the Philippines’ appeal to digital wanderers. First, its lack of consistent high-speed internet, especially outside the country’s major metropolitan areas. Second, the absence of special visas like those offered by Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea, Bali, and Spain.

The first problem was largely averted by last year’s introduction of billionaire Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service nationwide. And the second, many expect, will soon be eased by the issuance of nomadic-friendly visas allowing working foreigners uninterrupted stays of a year or more. Qualified applicants will likely need valid passports, certain income levels, documented employment by companies or clients outside the Philippines, clean criminal records, and international health insurance covering them while they’re here.

One of the highlights of the three-day Siargao conference I missed, in fact, was a presentation on House Bill No. 8165—known as the Digital Nomad Visa Bill—introduced by Surigao del Norte First District congressional representative Francisco Jose Matugas II.

It’s still pending. As are the dates of Siargao’s next digital nomad conference. No longer pending, I hope, will be my attendance.






David Haldane is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster with homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines. His latest book, A Tooth in My Popsicle, is available on Amazon. This column appears weekly in The Manila Times.


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