It all started because Matthias Zeitler had no one to play board games with.
He was a digital nomad before the term was even part of the vernacular, but he fits the profile perfectly: a software developer from Germany who, after starting his own business in 2009, said goodbye to his nine-to-five corporate life to travel the globe, working out of co-working spaces or wherever had strong Wi-Fi. After three years, he started looking for a home base. His friend suggested he check out Bulgaria.
The decision to move to Bansko, a quaint ski town two hours south of the capital Sofia, was a purely practical one, as Zeitler explains it. It is in the European Union (EU), so he doesn’t require a visa. It has a low cost of living and a Mediterranean climate — not too hot in the summer or too cold in the winter. But the main draw was Bulgaria’s 10 per cent income tax, among the lowest in the EU.
“Of course, I said, ‘A 10 per cent income tax is something that I would like to enjoy,’” Zeitler recalls with a laugh.
But he quickly realized life was going to be dull if there were no other digital nomads in town to keep him company. Back then, digital nomadism was niche; an alternative lifestyle afforded only to freelancers and entrepreneurs. But as one of them, Zeitler understood their needs and wants. Despite his friends’ warnings, he rented a small office space and launched Coworking Bansko that same year.
“Most of them thought I’m totally crazy,” he says. “Now, of course, in hindsight it was very obvious to everyone that this has to become a digital nomad hot spot.”
And it has. While reliable numbers on exactly how many nomads visit Bansko every year are nonexistent, Zeitler says his co-working space maintains around 100 paying members at any given time. And while Coworking Bansko was the first, there are now 10 co-working spaces in town, operated by five companies. On a typically hot summer afternoon in August, many were packed with people silently typing on their laptops in the cool air-conditioned office-like spaces.
Bansko looks like the sort of town you’d see only on postcards. The peaks of Bulgaria’s Pirin mountains rise over old stone houses with terracotta roofs. Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with traditional Bulgarian restaurants with benches draped with sheepskin and red and green tapestries. Memorial posters, called necrologs, that honour the memory of the dead are stapled to wooden doors. Local elders sit on street corners speaking in hushed Bulgarian, while packs of tanned-skinned kids roam the streets chasing stray cats, evidence of life beyond the town’s tourist-oriented centre.
In the winter, thousands of Europeans descend on Bansko — one of the most popular ski destinations in the Balkans. But in the summer months, the town quiets down, attracting families from Sofia on weekend getaways and, increasingly, hoards of remote workers. Tourism has long been the lifeblood of this small town, a fact that is met with varying levels of discontent from locals. To some, the new cliques of young people toting laptops around town are indistinguishable from other tourists. “They’re nothing special,” one local business owner told me with a shrug. Others find the sight confusing. Who are these people? Why are they all here?
Ariel Fu, 31, travelled to the remote mountain town to attend Bansko Nomad Fest. The festival, put on by Zeitler and a small army of volunteers, attracted some 700 digital nomads from more than 40 countries this year, making it the largest conference of its kind.
Fu is on a mission to visit all of the digital nomad hot spots around the world. A year and a half into her “nomad journey,” she’s ticked many destinations off her list: Barcelona, Chiang Mai, Madeira, Bali and Playa del Carmen, to name a few. She documents her travels on her blog, WorkAnywhereGo, where she also writes guides for aspiring nomads on how to see the world on a budget.
“I think in my younger years I was just too tied down in climbing the corporate ladder, accepting that life is just like that with only three or four weeks of vacation per year,” she says.
Fu previously worked as a product manager in the finance industry in Toronto. A confluence of things made her sell off her belongings, quit her job, and follow her passion: her landlord was raising her rent and she saw remote work taking off, but, more than anything, she felt isolated and lonely in the big city.
“I just didn’t feel like a strong sense of a community in Toronto,” she says.
Here in Bansko, she has a packed social calendar. There are morning hikes, afternoon skill-sharing meetups, yoga classes, networking events and trips to the nearby thermal springs. At Four Leaf Clover, the co-living space where she’s staying for three months, she’s surrounded by other digital nomads. It’s an intentional choice; she wants to be at the centre of the action. She says she finds it much easier making friends as a digital nomad, especially in a place like Bansko that’s teeming with them.
“Even though I need to say bye to them many times, we will end up crossing paths so many times around the world,” Fu says.
One morning, over ayran and banitsa, a flakey phyllo pastry pie stuffed with cheese, I met with a group of 10 nomads outside the co-living space. There was a couple from France who have been “slo-mads,” slow-travelling digital nomads, for 11 years; a young tech worker from Berlin who’s thinking of quitting his job if his company forces him back to the office; an Israeli woman who moved to Bansko during the pandemic to save money, but loved it so much she’s now a permanent resident; and a Vancouverite who left the city because his quality of life was “deteriorating.”
Most came to Bansko out of sheer curiosity. They had heard about this small Bulgarian town turned digital nomad village from the various Facebook and WhatsApp groups, where nomads share tips on the best places to visit, how to get there, and where to stay. Many had planned to be here for just a few weeks but found themselves extending their stay.
“It’s the Bansko Effect,” says Maya Meyaloyo, the Israeli nomad, who runs a YouTube channel about graphic design and now owns an apartment at Four Leaf Clover.
Discontent with the rising cost of living in their home countries was the main reason they took to the road, now scouring the globe for anywhere with cheap rent, a warm climate and fast Wi-Fi.
There’s a name for this phenomenon whereby people from high-income countries move to poorer countries with lower costs: geo-arbitrage. It was coined by Tim Ferriss in his 2007 book, The Four-Hour Workweek. Ferriss was perhaps ahead of his time when he penned the how-to book, which teaches people to work less through productivity hacks and generating a passive income. Core to his philosophy is that it’s easier to live on less than to earn more money.
“I can say with confidence I’m enjoying a high quality of life and saving money at the same time,” says Nasr Bitar, the young Syrian Canadian from Vancouver. In Bansko, he had a personal trainer and a life coach, which, he says, he wouldn’t be able to afford back home.
A studio apartment at Four Leaf Clover costs 250 euros a month, equivalent to about $370. Zeitler tells digital nomads they can live comfortably in Bansko for as little as 1,000 euros a month. It’s a steal, compared with other parts of Europe or North America.
The movement promotes a lifestyle where work is secondary to living, rejecting the nine-to-five grind culture and societal pressures to conform to certain norms, like getting married, buying property and starting a family. The personal journey many nomads pursue places importance on experiences over possessions, which they then carefully document on Instagram. It’s part self-discovery, part self-branding exercise.
“The digital nomad phenomenon, or lifestyle, has always been driven by rejecting some traditional notions around what work is,” says Dave Cook, an anthropologist at University College London who studies the movement and has lived among digital nomads in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Since the pandemic untethered people from their offices, the lifestyle has gone from niche to mainstream, Cook explains. While there are no official numbers on how many people have hopped on the trend, one study out of the U.S. found that nearly 17 million American workers identified as digital nomads in 2022, an increase of 131 per cent from three years prior. Many Canadians have adopted the lifestyle, too.
“Based on our studies of U.S. digital nomads, we think there’s somewhere between 30 and 50 million global digital nomads — but it’s just a guess,” says Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, a firm that worked with MBO Partners on the recent study.
People moving for jobs or a better quality of life is not a new phenomenon, but this sizable population of roaming remote workers is. In digital nomad hot spots where over-tourism has already strained local housing markets, there’s emerging evidence that digital nomads, who, like tourists, rely on short-term rentals via sites like Airbnb and VRBO, are exacerbating the problem.
“Gentrification is being exported,” says Cook.
But the blame cannot be placed squarely at digital nomads’ feet, he says, given that many of these locations were struggling with issues related to over-tourism long before remote workers started showing up.
“I think it’s really important for people to become intentional and to think about how their personal mobility has an effect on the world,” he says.
And yet, of the dozens of digital nomads I interacted with in Bansko, none thought this way. When asked if they consider the impact they have on the places they temporarily call home or if they’d avoid certain locations that are experiencing housing shortages, almost all said no, explaining they do more good than harm by spending money at local businesses wherever they go. It’s a debate that has raged for as long as there’s been tourism.
But unlike the typical tourist, digital nomads stay in places longer, sometimes for several months to a year, depending on the country’s visa rules. They spend more time using critical infrastructure depended upon by locals like transit, roads and health care, all without paying taxes.
The backlash can even be seen on social media platforms like TikTok, where the promotion of the digital nomad lifestyle has flourished. One American influencer documenting how much they spend in a week in Medellin, Colombia, as a digital nomad was stitched by a Colombian creator who said his friends had been forced to move out of the city because they could no longer afford to live there “thanks to foreigners.”
“It’s impossible for Columbians who earn Colombian pesos to survive in Medellin,” he says in the TikTok video. Outsiders bragging about how lavishly they can afford to live on social media is “hurting real-life people.”
Other critics go a step further, calling the location-independent lifestyle a form of neocolonialism or “new wave” imperialism. Whether digital nomads acknowledge it or not, the irony is self-evident: as they flee their home countries due to rising costs of living, their presence is, at least partially, responsible for the same happening in the less developed countries they frequent.
Sitting in the lounge area of Coworking Bansko, Zeitler does not hesitate to admit the lifestyle is a privileged one. There’s always talk among the community about how “powerful” your passport is, he says, which means how many countries can you visit without requiring a visa.
“(People from) all the developed nations basically can travel wherever they want, but the world is much bigger,” he says.
He gives a recent example of how an African sponsor of Bansko Nomad Fest wasn’t allowed into the country after being denied a visa. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the profile of the average digital nomad, constructed by data collected by the site NomadList, is a highly educated, single, straight white man in their 30s.
“The system is one of privilege. It’s quite racist. It’s all based on colonial power,” Cook says.
Rents have nearly doubled in Bansko in just the last few years, but Zeitler denies that it’s a result of the town’s growing popularity among digital nomads.
“I would love to claim credit for this development in creating all this value in real estate,” he says. “But in reality, what’s happening is that Bulgaria is developing, especially Sofia.”
Bansko is where wealthy Sofians purchase vacation homes and investment properties, he says. While it’s impossible to predict buyers’ motivations, the flood of young, relatively wealthy digital nomads that arrive every summer off-season would certainly make for a better return on investment.
Aside from the plethora of co-working spaces and new vegan options on restaurant menus, it’s difficult to discern what their impact has been on Bansko, a town with already so many resources catered to tourists. Zeitler has done his own economic analysis and estimates his members alone bring in three million euros per year, plus another 500,000 euros over the week-long festival in June.
“On average, (digital nomads) are spending much more than most (Bulgarian) tourists,” says Dimitar Durchov, the co-founder of Nestwork, a company that operates two modern co-working spaces in the heart of Bansko, with plans to open a third next year.
Durchov grew up in the quaint mountain town but had been living in Sofia when the pandemic hit. As lockdown measures were announced, he moved his family back to Bansko. A decade prior, around the time WeWork was exploding on the scene, he had dreamt of opening a co-working space in Bulgaria but didn’t have the resources to put his plan into action.
Then, in 2020, as the pandemic dragged on, he saw the need for a more professional, corporate-style co-working space in Bansko. He and his longtime friend and business partner Dimitar Vichev launched Nestwork the following year. Within weeks of opening, the first small co-working space they created was full, Vichev says, motivating them to take on a much larger space a few doors down.
Durchov agrees that the sudden popularity of his hometown has benefited the local economy. Now, he is urging the local municipality to capitalize on “the Bansko Effect.” He would like to see a better school established, perhaps one that caters to an English-speaking international crowd, which would entice families to settle in Bansko permanently. Like many small Bulgarian towns, it suffers from population decline and a dwindling tax base. If more foreigners became permanent residents, he says, it could improve the quality of life for everyone.
“We are trying to persuade municipality officials that this is something and that they, and the whole country, should be focused on going forward the next couple of years,” Durchov says.
He uses his own personal experience as a prime example: He left Bansko because of limited opportunities here. He didn’t know if he’d ever come back. Now, he doesn’t want to leave.
“I have three kids. The kids are happier. We, as parents, me and my wife, are happier,” he says.
With a few upgrades, he’s confident other young parents will fall in love with Bansko and stay. It’s a gamble many governments around the world are making with “digital nomad visas,” which allow remote workers to stay in a country for a year or longer if they meet certain requirements like having a full-time remote job and earning a high salary.
More than 50 countries offer digital nomad visa programs, including Canada, and more are expected to be announced in the coming year, according to the World Tourism Organization. The visas are being sold as a win-win: remote workers can slow their movements and live in their favourite destinations while avoiding residency paperwork, while countries suffering economically after the pandemic halted tourism entice them to stay longer and inject more money into the local economy. It’s too soon to know if the schemes are delivering on that promise, or if they’ll end up promoting tax evasion.
While the movement has its dark underbelly of “passport bros,” digital “bromads” and people who will openly exploit tax loopholes, in Bansko, the crowd was more interested in playing board games than anything sinister. The community exists in a strange bubble — seldom interacting with locals except to eat or drink — creating a culture all of its own. Awkward tech workers mingle with energetic solo women travellers and couples who met in some far-flung country.
This, according to Zeitler, is the reason Bansko has become one of the most popular digital nomad destinations in Europe. Being borderless and free also often means being alone. Paradoxically, friendship and connection are what many digital nomads said they crave most.
Finch Bergling, 25, became a digital nomad after seeing posts by Israeli influencer Dean Kuchel on Facebook. Kuchel, the self-proclaimed “king of digital nomads,” is a motivational speaker who sells six-month-long mentorship programs on how to live a location-independent lifestyle.
“I realized you don’t have to be rich if you want to see the world, all you need is a laptop and you can keep working,” says Bergling, who is a songwriter and music producer.
Bergling chose Bansko as his first destination because he was told he’d be surrounded by like-minded people. It had been scary to leave his home in Tel Aviv six months ago, he says, but knowing that Bansko had this rich nomad community provided him some relief. Now en route to Buenos Aires, Argentina, a handful of locations under his belt, he thinks it may have been a mistake.
“My standards are really high now,” Bergling says. “I’m really trying to be a digital nomad outside of Bansko and I find it’s much harder because I’m used to everything that I had in Bansko.”
He misses playing board games and drinking beer with other members of Coworking Bansko. For those brief three months, it felt like home, he says. It’s at these evening hangouts that Zeitler’s role is on full display. He introduces newcomers to the group and steers the conversation while making inside jokes.
Zeitler displays an incredible memory for names and bits of information of all the transient workers who have passed through his doors. He’s the king of the castle here, he joked one evening, the group releasing an easy laugh in response. He’s a somewhat polarizing figure among nomads — beloved by his members and criticized by others as a cult-like leader who holds exclusive events.
Indeed, he’s not shy about taking credit for making Bansko the hot spot it is today. On the drive into town when I visited in mid-August, there was a billboard that read, “Welcome to the home of the nomads,” with a caricature of Zeitler giving a thumbs up. It’s now been changed to promote his new venture: Coliving Semkovo.
Zeitler is in the midst of transforming a rundown resort built 30 years ago by Bulgaria’s socialist government into a massive co-living space for digital nomads. He’s calling it “nomad utopia.” The 17,000-square-metre building has 200 apartments and will function as a co-op. There are so many rooms, littered with old furniture from the days when it was briefly used as a hotel, he plans to have a co-working area, yoga studio, maker space, gym, theatre room and of course, a lounge filled with board games.
“I think what’s going to be part of the magic that we create here is the scale,” he says. “We will have about up to 250 people living in this building directly in nature, which means there will be many opportunities to connect with each other.”
The building may be in disarray, but Zeitler sees its potential. Just like seven years ago, when he arrived in Bansko. The idea is: create a space where people can find a sense of belonging, and they will come — as long as there’s fast Wi-Fi.