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Canada wants to woo ‘digital nomads.’ Can we compete?

Remote workers have, for some time, been taking their talents to the places they want to stay. They are living and working in various cities around the globe — in some cases lured to specific locales by dedicated programs that make it easier for them to do so.

Highly mobile workers able to weigh cost of living, quality of life across markets

A drone-shot image showing a bird's-eye view of Canada's Parliament buildings.

Digital nomads have been taking their talents to the places they want to be.

They are living and working in various cities around the globe — in some cases lured to specific locales by dedicated programs that make it easier for them to do so.

Canada is making its own pitch for these workers to try out life in this country, with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Sean Fraser this week announcing a targeted strategy to woo them.

This strategy, part of broader effort to attract tech talent, aims to promote the fact that people working remotely for a foreign employer can spend up to six months in Canada — and extend their time here, if they get a job offer from a domestic employer while in the country.

Yet the country is up against many other jurisdictions that are vying for the same highly empowered — and often well paid — workers in tech and other in-demand fields.

"People and capital, and frankly companies as well, are much more mobile than they ever were before," Fraser said in an interview.

And enticing people to check out the possibility of living in Canada is just part of a process of getting some of them to stay and build a life here permanently.

Competition for top talent

Trevor Neiman, the director of digital economy for the Business Council of Canada (BCC), said the competition for talent is fierce — and Canada needs to keep pace with what other countries are offering.

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"We need to constantly remind ourselves that newcomers have a choice in where they start their new lives," said Neiman, whose advocacy group's members include 170 business leaders from a range of industries.

Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom concurs "there is a global war for talent," and said via email that Canada appears to be on the right track.

Bloom said these workers tend to be highly educated, with many working in the tech and finance industries. And he said they are being sought out by "growth-focused governments."

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The flow of people is critically important to Canadian employers as well.

Business Council of Canada members tell Neiman that it's a major challenge accessing highly skilled and specialized talent in the country.

"It's impacting their ability to grow and compete globally," he said, noting that is not limited to workers from the tech sector.

Ample choice

There are places that have already seen thousands of people staying for stints of remote work.

People work on laptops in Beijing, near the Liangma river, in May 2022.

Indonesia's tourism ministry reported more than 3,000 digital nomads arriving in the country in the first eight months of 2022. A Reuters report said most of those workers were from Britain, Germany and Russia.

Meanwhile, some 9,500 Americans sought permits to live temporarily in Mexico City during a similar time period in 2022, according to The New York Times. The paper said "many more" U.S. citizens entered the country on tourist visas, which allow them to work while travelling.

There are also a growing number of countries — Argentina, Barbados, Bermuda, Croatia, Malta, Portugal and Spain among them — offering visas, arrangements or programs aimed at digital nomads.

Lou Janssen Dangzalan, a Toronto immigration lawyer, says that with Spain's digital nomad visa, the time people are spending in the country could count toward possible future citizenship.

"Spain has the long game figured out. You want to capture taxpayers, you want to capture these people and give them a place to stay and you want them to become citizens eventually," Dangzalan said.

He's less clear on how Canada's own strategy will achieve this — though the federal government expects some digital nomads who land here will end up seeking employment in this country.

The details of these programs in Spain and elsewhere may be highly relevant to Fraser's ministry, which has signalled it will "collaborate with public and private partners" to determine if more should be done to attract these workers.

The ministry told CBC News that consultations are underway to determine whether it would be beneficial to allow digital nomads to stay longer than six months, and what criteria need to be met for that to happen.

What about housing?

If digital nomads do come to Canada, they're going to need somewhere to live.

These prospective Canada-bound entrants may flock to some regions more than others, and the availability and cost of accommodations may vary accordingly.

A woman typing on a laptop on a beach in Barcelona, Spain.

But the cost of rental housing has been rising sharply across Canada and that raises questions about how attractive the country may be as compared to other places where these highly mobile workers could otherwise be.

"How are we going to attract people through this kind of initiative, or other kinds of initiatives, when the housing is unaffordable?" said Ray Sullivan, the executive director of the Canadian Housing and Renewal Association (CHRA).

"What's going to bring them to a country that has some of the least-affordable housing in the world?"

A sign outside a Vancouver apartment building indicates no vacancy.

In some cities outside of Canada, there have been concerns about the arrival of digital nomads and their impact on local housing resources.

In Mexico City, critics pointed to a pandemic-era influx of remote workers as contributing to rising rents. These tensions caught the attention of politicians, as well as media from outside the country.

"The digital nomads are arriving," then Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum said last fall. "Obviously, we don't want this to mean gentrification or price increases."

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Similar complaints have been made in Portugal.

But visitors also bring economic benefits and in Canada's case, officials see a win, whether such stays are short or long.

In any case, Fraser said the solution to the country's housing challenges is to build more places to live, as opposed to closing the door to people who would like to come here.

The CHRA's Sullivan had a similar take.

"The government is correct to try and welcome more people," he said.

However, he said Ottawa must also put the conditions in place for newcomers to "have the chance to be successful in establishing themselves."

That would include being able to find an affordable place to rent after landing here.

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