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Founder of Saltwater Nomads Tanja Polegubic, Source: Tanja Polegubic

Tanja Polegubic: The rise of digital nomads will reshape cities in 3 ways

Tanja Polegubic: The rise of digital nomads will reshape cities in 3 ways

An interview with the founder of Saltwater Nomads

Tanja Polegubic is the founder of Saltwater Nomads and co-founder of Digital Nomad Association (DNA) Croatia. Speaking to TheMayor.EU, she discusses the rise of digital nomads, how they impact cities, and upcoming events in Croatian cities.

Mrs Polegubic, how did you come up with the idea for Saltwater Nomads and what does your company do?

I moved to a new city and continent and knew I didn’t want to just work alone in my apartment so I opened a coworking space. This is how Saltwater started. I am originally from Australia, with Croatian heritage. I had always wanted to try living in Croatia and a remote job allowed this.

The goal was to start a physical hub that people travelling to Croatia or wanting to live there could use, while also doing projects of interest to me. I have since been involved in EU projects around the themes of science, agriculture, and sustainable tourism. 

Since the pandemic, and Croatia offering a digital nomad visa, the country is now “on the map” for a lot of digital nomads. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with great partners, public and private, who are behind this movement and continue to do world-class events and projects to ensure this is a welcoming country and destinations are prepared for remote professionals. 

In 2022, I’ll be working with other destinations in the region. Saltwater Nomads is now a consultancy that blends events, tourism, and co-creation strategies with sustainability.

What, in your opinion, are the benefits of working remotely?

Freedom, sustainability, family, and wellbeing.

I really value freedom, so this is my number one answer here. That stems from being able to choose the country you want to work in through to sitting on the grass in your home backyard instead of at a desk. I try to work outside at least once a day, be it on the terrace, at a café or on the lawn.

I read a statistic that adult UK citizens spend over 50 years of their adult life indoors. So, being in fresh air or mild sunshine is something you do not always get in a regular office or some climates.

In terms of sustainability, the environment benefits as traffic and fast fashion become less necessary. We no longer waste time commuting. This is good for our wellbeing and the environment. I read posts all the time of people who go for a run with the time they save or have more time for their physical health and people (and pets) in their lives.

Expanding on this, even the change in our wardrobes benefits the environment as corporate or ‘professional’ looks have changed. This affects fast fashion as I know I have personally bought fewer things and if you are travelling, you need to consider what you take.

The commute also impacts our ability to be with family. Whether it is young children, or in my case right now, I can spend extra time with my family in Australia as I can still keep working on projects remotely. 

When it comes to wellbeing, there are certainly advantages to having a support community and colleagues around in a physical workplace. This is why many digital nomads use coworking spaces – not only for productivity but for connections.

How do you think the rise of digital nomads will shape cities in the future?

It will shape cities through the potential for repopulation, the creation of new jobs and repurposing physical spaces.

Repopulation

Brain drains can turn into “brain gain” with those who had to leave for job opportunities elsewhere now being able to return and remain or even bring new people for short- or long-term stays. For example, colleagues can choose their ‘offsite’ or reunion locations based on where team members are, bringing a diverse skill set and potential for new industries. 

Employment and New Industries

There are economic benefits for a city, through new or extended offerings of products and services. It can also mean a city can benefit from diverse skill sets, through digital nomads engaging with a local community’s industry, schools, or other institutions. As a result, industries that may not have existed before can thrive as a hub in new areas.

Estonia is a great example of this, bringing in so many entrepreneurs. Lisbon, too, with its focus on startups more than a decade ago. Tourism-reliant cities spring to mind most here. This is certainly the case for Croatia, which has an estimated 20% of its GDP from tourism. 

Rethinking physical spaces

When it comes to physical spaces, this is an area with major changes, not only from digital nomads coming, but a local community that works from home instead of a CBD (central business district).

Commercial real estate is being disrupted with empty buildings and cancelled leases. If these remain empty, how they are repurposed needs careful consideration. This affects the businesses who support them, such as dining and retail businesses that previously serviced office workers.

Having a strong offer in the ‘off-season’ and an evening economy is also another area for digital nomads. Many business parks have hospitality businesses that close ‘after work’. If these become digital nomad hubs, the ‘workday’ schedule may be very different and determined by time zones as someone might start at 4 pm and finish at midnight.

To speak about tourism-reliant cities again, those that have empty spaces for more than half the year can be repurposed. For example, we convert a hostel into a coworking space from October to April. It is not a large money-earner, but it keeps someone employed and services the digital nomads who come in the autumn and winter months.

Adaptability, local public support, and promotion to digital nomads in these early phases of this new wave are key for cities to thrive.

Saltwater Nomads has collaborated with several Croatian cities to create opportunities for remote workers. Can you share some examples?

The best examples are Dubrovnik and Zagreb. I started working with Total Croatia News and the City and Tourist Board of Dubrovnik in 2020, which immediately saw the opportunity of the proliferation of remote work and Croatia’s standing globally since announcing a digital nomad visa: the second country in Europe to offer this, and the seventh in the world with the Caribbean islands.

In Dubrovnik, we held Croatia’s first digital nomad conference in October 2020. We knew that while millions of people would come to the city, they would not stay for a long time. So, the idea of a group of Digital Nomads-in-Residence (DN-I-R) was born.

Dubrovnik DN-I-R was held from 23 April to 23 May 2021, as a month-long lived experience, with weekly workshops to identify quick wins, short- and long-term goals and interventions. And, who better to inform this than a diverse group of digital nomads from all over the world and different occupations.

The city now has a roadmap for success. The details are outlined in the DN-I-R case study, and part of the deliverables includes a 30-day digital nomad card, long-stay website resource and new co-working spaces opening.

In Zagreb, another key project was Zagreb Digital Nomad Week in June 2021. The event was held over 7 days with 7 themes. Plus, we added a 6-month global ambassador project. It was held only 6 months after devastating earthquakes in 2020. The entire city was the venue.

In 2021, we covered emerging themes in remote work and highlighted lifestyles and experiences in Zagreb. There were over 26 speakers, streaming live from Bali to Barcelona, Manly Beach in Sydney, to a coworking space on Zagreb’s British Square, struck by one of the earthquakes.

What collaborations, projects, or events can digital nomads look forward to?

We have two hybrid events coming up in Croatia in May and June. And there’s also the chance to win a “workation” in Dubrovnik in May.

5-7 May 2022 

The inaugural Work. Place. Culture. Conference will be on 5-7 May in Dubrovnik (and online). We have some of the leading voices in HR and remote work, as well as destinations from Europe and further afield showcasing their work. We’re still reaching out to destinations and any city, region, or tourist board can contact us.

1-9 May 2022

Win a Workation (which is part of the above conference). A team from anywhere in the world can win a 5-star stay at Sun Gardens Dubrovnik with a workshop of their choice.

1-30 May 2022

Dubrovnik will also have its first digital nomad ambassadors in May, who will hold a meetup and workshops.

9-15 May 2022

DNA Croatia was contacted by Nomad Base as they had seen one of their community selected as a Zagreb Digital Nomad Ambassador. They will hold a Nomad Base Live event in Primosten on the Croatian coast. 

13-19 June 2022

Zagreb Digital Nomad Week 2022, an event that won major awards last year in B2B/B2C and sustainability.

26 June - 3 July

Bansko’s annual Bansko Nomad Fest is on in Bulgaria.

October to April

Saltwater’s Nomad Table is a meetup event every Friday at Zinfandel Restaurant in Split. DNA Croatia also holds regular Wednesday drinks around Croatia. 

September 2022 

It is not yet public but I know of at least 3 European cities looking to do a range of events and campaigns and a virtual event in the USA.

It is a big year for digital nomads as borders reopen and companies roll out their remote work policies. We hope to see you at some of our future events –  and can offer a 10% rate in Dubrovnik for any TheMayor.EU readers who contact us and mention this article.

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