I'm writing this article from the front room of my house. Later I'll probably take my laptop to a café for a change of scenery; next week I might even take it on a road trip.
Like many in this Covid world, I work from home – which in effect makes me a 'digital nomad', someone who only needs an internet connection (and often a mobile phone) to do their job. This type of work has become much more common: according to the Economist, Americans now spend 60 percent of their working hours at home compared to just 5 percent before the pandemic.
Not all digital jobs are equal, of course. Many employers still require staff to physically be in an office for a set number of days per week and there are open questions about whether this flexibility will remain post-pandemic. Nonetheless, many roles have undoubtedly become more flexible and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
This is opening up opportunities for countries to attract digital workers looking for new lifestyles.
Countries are clueing into this trend and are competing to attract workers who can bring their jobs with them. Italy has tax breaks of up to 90 percent for five years for workers settling in certain regions; Spain offers a self-employment visa; Estonia has 'e-residents' who can run an Estonian business without ever actually going there; Croatia and Dubai offer digital nomad visas; Norway even offers a lifetime visa to any remote worker willing to live on the island of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle. Like many of these countries, Mongolia has a lot to offer. It has the lowest population density of any independent country and a globally unique nomadic culture; it has a wide variety of breath-taking landscapes ranging from mountain lakes to one of the last mostly-intact steppe ecosystems on Earth.
In addition, the speed of Mongolia's vaccine rollout is leading the world, meaning the country could be one of the few that people feel safe travelling to this summer. For example, if it can reach the vaccination rate of Israel, it could be added to Britain's new 'green' list, which currently only includes 12 destinations.
And Ulaanbaatar is in a convenient time zone for Asia-based digital work with direct flights to Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, Istanbul, Frankfurt and more.
But there are also obstacles. Covid-19 is the most acute; it isn't safe for the Mongolian border to open until the current outbreak is under control and the population is fully vaccinated.
There are also more chronic issues that the Mongolian government will need to address if it wants to attract digital workers. The most visible is the winter air pollution in UB, which often features international reporting on Mongolia. Any efforts to attract digital workers will likely fall flat until the air in UB is clearer year-round.
Another chronic issue is the power grid. In 2016, residents of UB suffered roughly 3,200 minutes without power spread over an average of 12 blackouts. These interruptions are problematic for a digital economy. As we've said before on Mongolia Weekly, fixing the grid will take substantial political capital but is necessary for unlocking new economic sectors, such as renewable energy and remote work.
Mongolia also has relatively low internet speeds, which as of March this year ranked 112th globally for mobiles and 85th for fixed broadband. Speeding this up is certainly a secondary problem to the pollution and energy reliability issues, but nonetheless is worth considering.
There is also the point that digital workers may be unlikely to stay year-round in Mongolia anyway given the extreme winter cold. If so, perhaps Mongolia could market itself as a summer destination: a savvy marketing campaign would need to be reinforced by measures such as negotiating visa-free travel with target countries, cutting the cost of acquiring a Mongolian visa, extending the length of visas or introducing a new visa category for digital workers. There is encouraging news by authorities towards online immigration services for expats.
Ultimately, the government may need to think of creative ways to rejuvenate Mongolia's tourism economy after the pandemic ends. Many Mongolian tourism operators are in a state of limbo; staff is taking on other work to pay the bills while waiting for the pandemic to end.
Any creative effort to encourage foreign tourists back once it is safe to do so, including those who can bring their jobs with them, would ultimately benefit Mongolians and the economy.
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