Dan Clarke spent a good part of 2020 on the Indonesian islands of Bali and neighbouring Gili, where he spent his days working on his laptop and his down time enjoying the picturesque beaches.
The cryptocurrency investor used to split his time between Singapore and Jakarta, but when the coronavirus pandemic arrived the promise of an idyllic, affordable lifestyle lured him and many other digital nomads who can work from anywhere as long as they're connected to the internet.
"Everything in Bali is amazing. Some places in Bali have better Wi-Fi than some places in Singapore. It is also affordable. You can rent a villa for US$900 (S$1,200) a month, with a pool and cleaning staff that come every day. It's a high quality of life for sure," he said. His Airbnb rental house in Bali came with two different internet lines, free Netflix and free PlayStation, he added.
"Given a choice, I'd be back in Bali tomorrow," added Briton, 33, who returned to Singapore in January.
Digital nomads like Clarke have become a new target market in Indonesia's plans to revive its pandemic-hit, US$63 billion tourism sector. To prop up Bali's status as a digital nomad hub, Southeast Asia's biggest economy plans to introduce a new type of long-term visa, which lasts for five years and will enable foreigners to live and work in the country without a work permit.
Tourism Minister Sandiaga Uno last week said he had proposed the idea to the immigration agency to boost tourism, the property industry and the job market.
“Long-term visas have become a prerequisite for the world’s digital nomads to consider Bali their second home,” Sandiaga said.
“You can work in Bali and be close to a beach, this will be the main appeal … on top of [Bali’s] friendly culture and locals.”
Tourism contributes about 5.7 per cent of Indonesia's gross domestic product, and as much as 53 per cent of Bali's economy, where the sector employed a million workers before the pandemic. Last year, only around a million international tourists visited the island, a 83.26 per cent decline year on year, according to government statistics. China was the biggest source of inbound arrivals, followed by India, Russia, and Japan.
Bali has for decades been Indonesia's top tourist destination, thanks to its unique Hindu culture and impressive natural landscape, but in recent years its strength as a digital nomad hub has increased as technology advances and internet speeds improve. Places like the lush jungles of Ubud or surf heaven Canggu are now not only tourist hotspots, but second homes to creative types like cinematographer Mario Gonzalez Dias.
"There were a lot of events before the coronavirus pandemic, so it was super, super easy to meet people. It's crazy how many different, cool people are around. Not only [those who work] in cinematography, but in other aspects in life, like yoga. A lot of people are doing meditation, a lot of people are really finding different ways of living here in Ubud," Dias said.
If the digital nomad visa goes ahead it will make Indonesia even more attractive to this set of workers, putting the country on par with places such as Georgia and Estonia, which already offer the visas. Their presence, in turn, can boost various sectors of the economy.
"Foreign work visas in Indonesia are [at present] very complicated and expensive, I think this has discouraged digital nomads from moving to Indonesia and encouraged many others to live in Indonesia off the grid," said Matt Gebbie, director at hospitality consultant Horwath HTL in Indonesia.
"I encourage the reduction in visa red-tape and an increase in digital nomads living and working in Bali. With [the nomadic] lifestyle there is income to be earned from flights, boats, cars, hotels, cafes, attractions and entertainment. Digital nomads love adventure and will explore, sharing the joy of the income they earn with the local population."
In Southeast Asia, Bali will have to compete with Thailand's Chiang Mai or Koh Phangan, Malaysia's Penang, Vietnam's Da Nang, Hoi An, or Ho Chi Minh City, and Davao in the Philippines, all of which have also enjoyed a surge of digital nomad visitors in recent years. Thailand's Board of Investment in December proposed a change to its Smart Visa requirements so that digital nomads and remote workers could stay in the country for up to four years.
Advocates of the new type of visa say it could help to curb illegal practices. At present, there are many people working in the country who are thought to be doing so illegally, under tourist visas, while others have been paying bribes, through third party services, for visa extensions.
In January, an American self-described digital nomad Kristen Gray was deported from Indonesia after being accused of visa violations and tax avoidance in relation to her Bali-based graphic design business.
Dias, the cinematographer in Ubud, had a tip for foreigners hoping to work in Bali on how to avoid a fate similar to that of Gray.
"I think it's a matter of respect, for local people and local rules. There are some foreigners in Bali and they don't want to have relationships with Balinese people, I see that happening a lot. If you don't care about Balinese people, then Balinese people won't like you.
"I think foreigners should also at least give something back to Balinese people as during the coronavirus pandemic, many local people are struggling to get decent pay."
Clarke, the cryptocurrency investor, said the success of the new visa would hinge in part on what tax arrangements Jakarta decided on.
He urged Jakarta to consider making it easier for online entrepreneurs to set up in the country so it could compete with Singapore.
"I think the new visa is a great first step, and I think most people would be willing to pay tax as well, for example a flat rate of 10 per cent income tax. This would bring the Indonesian economy out of the dark a little bit and into the light, and boost the tax coffers of Bali and Indonesia," Clarke said.
"If Bali gets the regulation right here, it can really put itself on the map as a new tech hub in the region."
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.