Digital nomads flee virus-hit Manila for shattered tourist towns

San Juan: After months cooped up in coronavirus-hit Manila, Tanya Mariano fled the Philippine capital to work from the beach, joining a growing number of digital nomads helping a devastated tourism industry stay afloat.

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A ban on foreign holidaymakers entering the archipelago nation and domestic travel curbs since the pandemic began last year have forced many operators to close and wiped out millions of jobs.

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Many digital workers in congested Manila, fearing COVID-19 and fed up with lockdowns and restrictions, are escaping to largely deserted nature hotspots to do their jobs – injecting much-needed money into communities dependent on outside visitors.

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Sitting with her laptop on the balcony of the ocean-view apartment she rents with her boyfriend in San Juan, a surf town several hours north of her home, Mariano says the move has been a “big quality of life improvement”.

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“Being close to the ocean, being close to nature is very calming,” said Mariano, 37, a freelance writer and communications specialist.

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“When I’m in a meeting, usually Zoom or Google Meet, I try not to use the beach as my background – I just show people the wall so they don’t hate me.”

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There are no official figures on the number of people working remotely from the country’s picture-postcard beaches and dive spots, but it is certainly a fraction of the millions of tourists that usually flock to its shores.

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The impact of COVID-19 travel restrictions on the sector has been dramatic: $37 billion slashed from the economy and the loss of over two million jobs, according to World Travel and Tourism Council data.

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Bravo Beach Resort on the southern island of Siargao – a renowned surfing destination – has felt the pain acutely.

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Normally packed out with local and international tourists, it now averages around five to 10 guests at any one time – about 10 percent of its capacity – said general manager Dennis Serrano.

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With the resort haemorrhaging as much as 200,000 pesos ($4,180) a month, he hopes the situation will be “back to normal” by next year.

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Even the white-sand resort island of Boracay has been turned into a “ghost town”, according Eugene Flores, manager of the La Banca House boutique hotel, where most of the rooms are filled with long-term digital nomads from Manila.

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Official figures show arrivals to the island fell to less than 335,000 last year, compared with more than two million in 2019.

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“When you go out you can see shops, you can see restaurants, you can see hotels that are really closed. Only a few are open,” Flores said.

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‘You’re still bleeding out’

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The glacial pace of the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout is likely to delay the full reopening of the country’s beleaguered tourism industry.

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For now, digital nomads are a “target market”, said the Department of Tourism, encouraging resorts and hotels to cater to the “new breed” of travellers by offering fast internet and wellness activities.

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The influx of mobile workers, whose Manila salaries stretch further in the provinces, is keeping businesses like Papa Bear restaurant in San Juan afloat.

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“You are not completely bleeding out, you’re still bleeding out for sure, but you’re at least generating something to offset enough of it,” said owner Denny Antonino.

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Digital nomads now make up 30-40 percent of his customers and he hopes the trend continues after the pandemic to even out the seasonal fluctuations.

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“They’re able to do their work but in between meetings they can surf, they can go hiking, they can go to the falls – there are more things to do,” said Antonino.

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‘I didn’t need to worry as much’

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Nine months after Carlo Almendral left his “prison” apartment in Manila’s financial district for San Juan, the chief executive of an artificial intelligence start-up said he has no plans to leave.

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The 43-year-old often starts his day with a dawn bike ride through the countryside or a surf when the waves are up.

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It ends with a business meeting and glass of wine on the beach at sunset, accompanied by his rescue French bulldog Alfred.

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“I didn’t realise how much time I had spent worrying about the pandemic until I got here,” Almendral said from the beachfront resort, where his office is a breezy rooftop studio with a sea view.

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“Being here has made me more productive and more creative.”

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