Bali’s Digital Nomads: A Double-Edged Sword?

Written by Kayla Sagiz- Head of Submissions

Bali, the Indonesian island paradise, has always attracted sun-seekers and spiritual seekers alike. However, in recent years, a new type of traveler has arrived: the digital nomad. 

These remote workers have left their traditional office jobs in search of more freedom and flexibility, and Bali has become a hotspot for them. As their numbers have grown, so too have the questions about their impact on the island. Are these digital nomads affecting Bali negatively? 

The question is a controversial one. Some argue that the influx of foreigners has brought new job opportunities and increased demand for local goods and services. They point to the thriving coworking spaces and cafes catering to digital nomads as evidence of the positive impact. Others worry that the rapid growth of the industry is leading to rising living costs and gentrification. The demand for affordable housing has led to the construction of new developments and the conversion of local homes into vacation rentals. This has driven up prices and displaced local residents, who can no longer afford to live in their own communities. 

Moreover, some have argued that the cultural impact of the digital nomads on Bali is even a bigger cause for concern. More and more Balinese locals are becoming fed up with the rising after-work party scene on the island, particularly in the area of Canggu. In fact, 8,000 have signed a petition expressing their frustrations with the constant noises, drug consumption, and public drunkenness.

The digital nomads’ impact on Bali’s economy is also a topic of debate. While the growth of the industry has provided new opportunities for locals to start businesses and work in the tourism sector, some worry that the reliance on foreign visitors  has created a dependency that could be detrimental in the long run.

The Indonesian government has taken notice of the influx of digital nomads to Bali and has implemented some policies to address it. In 2020, the government announced a plan to crack down on the digital nomads, who were illegally working without proper permits. Following that, in 2023, the Head of the Bali Tourism Office created two task forces to monitor and enforce appropriate behavior among tourists. Whether it be tourists caught disrespecting a holy site, driving illegally, or breaking visa rules, this task force ensures that justice is served through restorative justice, fines, or even deportation. Some criticize this task force saying that it creates an “us vs. them” mentality between tourists and digital nomads and the Balinese locals.  This mentality not only deepens the divide, but also hampers the growth of a culturally rich and inclusive environment.

However, these recent developments are not indicative of the government’s intention to discourage new visitors. The government also implemented another policy in 2022 that allows everyone who has more than 130,000$ in their bank account to get a “second home visa” which would allow them to stay on the island for 10 years. Additionally, the government created a so-called “retirement visa” which encourages retirees from around the world to choose Indonesia as their retirement destination. Under this programme, everyone over 55 who meets the financial requirements can apply for a long-term visa. 

The controversy of digital nomads has gained more traction through the case of American graphic designer Kristen Gray. In her book “Our Bali Life is Yours” she shared her personal experiences and provided advice on how to relocate to Bali highlighting the island’s affordability, LGBTQ+ friendly atmosphere, and the ease of obtaining long-term visas. She even mentions “direct links to visa agents and how to get into Indonesia during COVID.” Many argue that Gray’s book misrepresents the process of moving, and disregards the economic, and cultural implications of the island’s tourism industry. For instance, a queer Indonesian woman highlights the discrepancy between Gray’s portrayal of an “elevated” life in Bali and the struggles faced by the locals, especially the LGBTQ+ community. 

In the end, the answer to the question of whether digital nomads are affecting Bali in a negative way is not straightforward. While the industry has brought benefits and opportunities, it has also created huge concerns.

It’s essential to understand that not all digital nomads who visit Bali have negative intentions or impact on the local community. Some genuinely want to learn from the culture, interact with locals and boost the local economy. They see their presence as a way of supporting the community rather than exploiting it. However, we can’t ignore the bigger picture and the systemic issues at play. Although digital nomads may be helping the economy, their presence adds to the cultural and economic disparities between Western visitors and the Balinese people.

At the end of the day, it’s crucial for digital nomads to be aware of their influence on their surroundings. Afterall, it is not just Indonesia facing this challenge; countries like Puerto Rico, Thailand, and Malaysia also deal with the increasing number of digital nomads. As remote work continues to skyrocket, this issue will become even more significant in the future. Thus, it becomes imperative to find balance that fosters a sustainable and equitable future for all.

Edited by Sol Zeev Ben Mordehai, artwork by Vanessa Franko