Coronavirus

Remote Workers Want to Live in Asia, But Asia Doesn't Seem to Want Them Quite Yet

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It's often said that remote workers can work from any place that has 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

According to a global Booking.com survey of 20,000 travelers working from home during the pandemic, more than a third have considered working remotely from a different destination, Nuno Guerreiro, regional director at the site, told CNBC's Global Traveler.

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

"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

Asia was home to four of the top 10 best destinations for expatriates to live and work in 2019, according to expat networking site InterNations' "Expat Insider 2019 Survey."

1. Taiwan – best in the world for health care affordability
2. Vietnam – best in the world for personal finances
3. Portugal
4. Mexico
5. Spain
6. Singapore best in the world for personal safety
7. Bahrain
8. Ecuador
9. Malaysia – scored well for affordable cost of living and housing
10. Czech Republic

Adrien Pierson is the co-founder and COO at MillionSpaces, a workspace booking website that operates in Singapore and Sri Lanka. He said he believes other destinations in Asia will be attractive to remote workers for the following reasons:

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

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

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 subject, 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.
Alexander Spatari | Moment | Getty Images
Thailand's Special Tourist Visa allows tourists to stay for periods up to nine months.

Informal paths for remote workers to live temporarily in parts of Asia still exist, though the pandemic has made them harder to manage.

"Digital nomads go from place to place and do frequent visa runs," said Grutka, referencing the practice of crossing between national borders to renew tourist visas. "With Covid now, it's more costly, and there's more of a time commitment to making those moves."

Bali is officially closed to international tourists, though some are finding ways to enter during the pandemic, as reported by Singapore digital newspaper Today.

Thailand's new Special Tourist Visa allows visitors to stay up to 90 days and can be renewed twice, provided tourists quarantine in approved facilities for at least 14 days upon arrival, provide proof of long-term accommodation plans, and have at least $100,000 in medical insurance coverage.

As for whether Asia will ever formally open to remote workers, Booking.com's Guerreiro said "it's only natural for supply to follow demand."

The development of vaccines, improved contact tracing, and the possibility of remote work becoming a long-term reality made Guerreiro predict that it's "looking promising for those who are able to travel and work virtually from anywhere."

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