Where can remote workers work during the pandemic? So far, not Asia

It’s often said that remote workers can work from anywhere where there’s an internet connection.

But tell that to someone who wants to live and work in Bangkok or Bali right now.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of workers from their offices into their homes — and many have decided they want to change countries, at least temporarily. Catering to that trend, countries in Europe, the Caribbean and the Caucasus are trying to entice those workers with new “digital nomad” visa programs.

But to date, no Asian country has formally opened the door to this new remote workforce, leaving them to wonder whether to hold out for their preferred Asian destination, or to apply to live somewhere else that’s open to them now.

Remote workers want to travel

A woman works near the beach on the island of Koh Phangan, Thailand.

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“From the research, we can tell that there’s an appetite to remotely work from a different destination, with respondents in Asian nations such as Thailand (60%), Vietnam (52%), Singapore (50%), China (45%) and Hong Kong (39%) surpassing the global average (37%) in expressing their interest in these types of arrangements,” he wrote via email.

Interest was also high from respondents from Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Russia and the United States.

Wanted: leisure and a lower cost of living

Credit: CNBC.com Source: Adrien Pierson, MillionSpaces

Launched in 2020, MillionSpaces’ service is designed to let workers book places to work or conduct meetings within hotels, bars, restaurants and traditional co-working spaces, for periods as short as an hour. Pierson said he believes remote work is here to stay because it lets working people — not just retired folks — live in the destination of their choice.

“You are almost achieving … retirement 20 years earlier,” he said.

Places such as Phuket, Thailand and Bali, Indonesia are leisure destinations with enough infrastructure to conduct work, said Adrien Pierson.

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American Marta Grutka said she’s interested in moving to Bali or Bangkok.

“I lived in Bali in the past, working from my laptop,” she said. “If border restrictions weren’t barriers, I can imagine having Bali as a base from which I work.”

She said that “the quality of life for the price” is her main motivation, though she cautioned that living and working in Bali on a budget isn’t the same experience as going there for vacation.

“The prices are increasing dramatically due to the rush of expats going there over the years,” she said. “A few business owners I know have recently relocated from Bali to Bangkok to have a more cost-effective and cosmopolitan lifestyle.”

Living and working in Bali isn’t the same as going for a holiday, cautioned long-term digital nomad Marta Grutka.

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Singaporean Shuhui Fu has been working from home since March of 2020. She said if her company moves to permanent remote work, which she is “quite certain it will,” she will explore moving to Japan.

“I am just fascinated by its culture and vibrancy, and yet there is a likeness to [Singapore] in terms of order and safety,” she said.

In addition to travel opportunities, Fu is also motivated to move for the weather — but not for the warm beaches that attract many travelers to Asia. She would go “somewhere I can experience the seasons, which is something you don’t get to do in Singapore.”

A future for traveling remote workers in Asia?

To date, no country in Asia has announced a program specifically designed to attract the influx of remote workers generated by the pandemic.

And whether any Asian nation will provide a formal pathway for them to live and work within their borders is unclear. Asian governments have been tight-lipped on the topic, and authorities in Singapore, Bali and Thailand did not respond to CNBC’s questions on the topic. 

Thailand’s Special Tourist Visa allows tourists to stay for periods up to nine months.

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