| Oct 3, 2022

Digital Nomads: Revolutionaries or Gentrifiers?

Foreigners living abroad cannot help but impact their host economies and environments, often pricing out locals. One beachtown protest in Mexico underlined the need for a new approach.

The news spread via word-of-mouth, as it often did in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, the surf town on Oaxaca’s southern coast where I had been living and working as a digital nomad for about a year.

A development company had plans to build 80 luxury apartments on a remote beach in Puerto called Bacocho. This controversial building would have posed a significant environmental threat to marine turtles that lay their eggs on Bacocho beach. Not only that, but the apartments would have a starting cost of $253,000 in a country where the average salary is around $5,000 a year. 

It’s a story that Mexico is tired of hearing. Exorbitant prices push locals farther and farther from the coastline, prices rise, and foreign vacationers bring dangerous demand for party drugs. For locals and expats alike, the building of luxury apartments in Bacocho was a call to arms. Summoned by the Instagram account SOS Puerto, I went to a meeting to learn if there was anything we could do to prevent the building’s construction. 

At the meeting, a young local man who identified himself as Eli recognized that a lot of the people in the audience were foreign. He thanked us for coming, but added: “With all due respect, if Puerto gets destroyed, you will have somewhere else to go. This is our home. We have no other home to go to.”

Living Responsibly as a Digital Nomad or Business Owner

While foreign business ownership and digital nomadism are beginning to become contentious topics, these social trends won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Globalization will continue to grow, as will the possibility of remote work. 

Some behaviors of remote workers in foreign countries are harmless, and others are damaging. So instead of wishing digital nomads would just go home, it may be more productive to encourage education about how to travel, live, and spend without hurting our generous host countries. There are ways digital nomads can ensure our presence doesn’t further contribute to gentrification:

Stick Around and Treat This Place Like Home

People who plan on investing in a property or a business abroad can dedicate at least a few years to living nearby and nourishing it.

It is very common in Puerto to see businesses that have local workers, but the owners are in Mexico City or abroad. This phenomenon often means that many businesses and properties don’t have an owner physically present to ensure their businesses improve over time to better meet the needs of their local clients. Yet prices continue to rise regardless. 

When that happens, local people end up paying higher rents, but the buildings and infrastructure haven’t improved to justify those higher rents. This leads to oppressive housing and rent costs in places that aren’t proportionately developed. 

For example, sometimes people are enticed by low property costs to buy affordable lots abroad, but then leave and simply wait for the property value to increase before selling. I have seen owners expect huge returns on properties that still don’t have electricity or a wastewater system. 

A better approach is to live in a place long-term, integrate, and become a part of the community. Inevitably, expats will see ways that they can make that place — and thus their business and property — better. If they then sell that location or see returns on a business venture, they will know it was due to true value improvement.

Try Not to Pay “Gringo Tax”

“Gringo tax” refers to when foreigners pay a higher price just for being foreign. Some argue that if it doesn’t make a difference for you, then you should just pay. But paying gringo tax, especially on necessary purchases like food, water, or rent, can have unintended negative effects, like driving up prices for everyone else. 

Prices might sound reasonable if someone is accustomed to a higher cost of living, but a local would recognize them as unfair. To keep up with local prices, people can try:

  • Researching the local minimum and average wages and comparing them to their budget. 
  • Memorize a reference point, such as a cup of coffee or lunch, and compare it to other prices. 
  • Put the numbers in context by comparing them to each other, not by comparing them to US dollars. 

Paying fair prices not only improves personal budgeting, but more importantly, helps prevent pricing out the families who built the community.


Locals and Foreigners Standing United

Culture ebbs and flows regardless of borders — and that is only becoming more and more true. Fortunately, there are ways to leave our home country that are responsible and constructive. 

A few weeks after our anti-construction meeting, the development company started using dump trucks to take tons of sand out of Bacocho beach. With no other options left, the people of Puerto Escondido, both local and foreign, stood in front of the dump trucks.

Eventually, having grown impatient, the trucks turned around amidst cheers from the protestors. During the next few days, a small camp was built to block the construction equipment. The Puerto community brought water and sun umbrellas. Restaurants brought food for the protestors, some of whom camped out at the entrance to the beach for weeks. 

A few weeks later, with the protests still going strong, signs appeared on the site declaring that the construction had been shut down by PROFEPA, Mexico’s federal environmental protection legal team. 

Making a Conscious Choice

It was one of the most inspiring examples of environmental and social activism that I had ever seen. Oaxaca has a long history of effective protest, and it was humbling to see a community of people decide that they would sooner stand in front of enormous dump trucks and stare them down than see their homes ruined.

The effort to save Bacocho had been a communal effort from people who cared about Puerto, whether they were born there or they were transplants. The story served as an example of how a grassroots movement can influence the fate of a beloved town.

So are digital nomads revolutionaries or gentrifiers? It is up to us digital nomads to decide.

Photos (from top): A protest blocks the entrance to Bacocho beach with a sign that reads “Rescue Bacocho;” A baby sea turtle on Bacocho beach; Bacocho beach, construction-free’; @SOSpuerto via Instagram; a poster in Mexico City that says, “Your tourism evicts families.”

Siobhan Brier
Siobhan Brier

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Siobhan Brier is a novelist, freelance writer, editor, and translator, and the manager of Inkless Writing Agency. view profile


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