Digital nomadism is taking hold and thriving in unlikely places. These typically outdoorsy, small, peripheral places have superseded big cities as bases of choice for a growing swathe of freelances and the growing legions of remote workers in a post-COVID world.
One of those places is Bansko, a small town at the foot of the Pirin Mountains in Bulgaria that has traditionally been better known as a relatively inexpensive ski resort.
The story of digital nomadism in Bansko began 5 years ago with the arrival of Matthias Zeitler, who founded Coworking Bansko, a working space and social hub that has put the small town of Bansko on the international digital nomad circuit.
COVID taught us is that we can work distributed, remotely, and worldwide if you set up the right processes. This will become mainstream.
Last summer Zeitler organized the second Bansko Nomad Fest, a weeklong event that attracted 350 digital nomads. It was booked out months before it began.
Digital nomadism – working remotely abroad – is a way of life that has gained mainstream prominence due to COVID, and it is now being billed as the largest upcoming migration in human history.
The Bansko Nomad Fest offers an immersion into this brave new world in dozens of talks, workshops and presentations, as well as social and outdoorsy activities.
The gathering has raised the profile of Bansko as one of the hubs in Europe for digital nomads.
Asked about the effect of digital nomads on the local economy, Zeitler said: “We bring a new demographic and that creates a stream of income for certain businesses and landlords who provide services to digital nomads. This is mostly people who rent flats to nomads, as well as some restaurants who are frequented by nomads.”
Although all remote workers, or location independent workers, are able to work on their computers away from an office or base, these are divided into two broad categories: digital nomads who tend to travel or hop around, and more sedate remote workers who move somewhere and largely stay put in one location.
A recent study has estimated that the number of digital nomads worldwide amounts to 35 million, with a third of them being Americans, whose economic contribution to host countries amounts to US$787 billion annually. Governments are moving to capture a part of the growing market.
Around two dozen countries worldwide now offer residence visas specifically for digital nomads – countries within the EU, such Malta and Greece and Estonia and Croatia, offer these visas for non-EU nationals, normally offering yearlong, renewable residence visas.
There is a lot more to digital nomadism or remote work than someone working on a laptop connected to the internet. A quest for community and ease of setup in a far-off land has spawned an entire industry in the past few years. This mostly takes the shape of coworking spaces – informal, funky, and comfy office-type spaces which provide holistic office facilities for members, and doubly serve to foster a sense of community and productivity among nomads.
The growth in Bansko has been so rapid that around half a dozen coworking spaces have now set up in town. These coworking spaces charge membership fees that hover at just over €100 monthly.
But why pay to work in a coworking space if you can equally work out of your residence?
It is all about fostering community and connections, Zeitler said.
“It’s an environment where you can make commercial connections,” Zeitler said. “For example, if you have to contract a task to a freelancer, then it would be better if you meet the person first in an environment that is social and productive. The other benefit is the chance to meet like-minded people. For many nomads, the coworking space becomes the centre of their social life.”
Community can also be found in coliving places, which offer accommodation for digital nomads or remote workers. In these places, residents would have their private accommodation quarters alongside social spaces – a garden, a lounge area, shared or communal kitchen – where they can mingle and meet.
Bansko's Nomad Fest brings together all these elements – a sense of community, camaraderie, and exploration. Formal presentations are topped with informal “unconference” sessions at the local park, and participants could also partake in outdoorsy activities – white water rafting, horse riding, and hiking – or let their hair loose in evening entertainment, whether that’s speed dating, clubbing, or karaoke.
For information on next year’s nomad fest, set to take place between 26 June and 3 July, click on this link.