Welcome to Digital Nomadland | WIRED

seen from afar, The Ponta do Sol neighborhood looks as compact and picturesque as a postcard. In the center there is a small roundabout, a gas station, a small shopping complex and a series of modest buildings covered with terracotta tiles. The undulating green slopes of banana, palm, and pine trees sprawl behind, with houses dotted between the hills. All of this is surrounded by a dramatic hillside and made subtropically lush by the many small waterfalls that roar from the rock surface and fill the centuries-old irrigation canals. When Gonçalo Hall first passed through the area in September 2020, these words came to mind: “What is this?”

Ponta do Sol is located on the south coast of Madeira, the main island of the Portuguese archipelago of the same name. Hall had visited Madeira once as a child, but he could not remember it being this beautiful, this wild. Now, he was seeing the place “with the eyes of a digital nomad,” as he said in an interview. He had returned to help organize a conference on remote work in Funchal, the regional capital of Madeira. The day after his long journey through the countryside, he approached the regional economy minister and asked directly: Why are you sleeping with digital nomads?

Hall, 35, is tall and muscular, blond hair, blue eyes, cheerful demeanor and a tendency to speak hashtag mantras like “life is beautiful” or “be happy, make millions”. He grew up in Lapa, Lisbon’s most posh area, but now owns an apartment in Ponta do Sol with his wife, Catarina: he complained that Lisbon had become too much of a melting pot when we first met. Hall had long dreamed of finding a lifestyle where the bankers in his family could come to work in flip-flops and shorts instead of suits and ties. In early 2019, the couple moved to Bali for two months, where Hall got their first remote contract, including a marketing job for a firm called Remote-how, and amassed a massive contact list in the process. Then they went back to Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Bali and stayed for a month or two each before returning to Europe.

When she returned to Lisbon less than a year after her digital nomad lifestyle, Hall was holding lectures on remote work and digital nomadism and was describing herself as an expert on both. When it landed in Madeira, it took the low cost of living, fast internet speeds, surfing beaches and Instagram-sharable goodies that are the pillars of digital nomad marketing. He noticed something else in the idyllic pace. He was struck by a small nomadic project he had visited in the Spanish countryside just before arriving in the archipelago; it was fascinating, more intimate than any bustling urban center he had ever experienced.

Established digital nomad spots like Chiang Mai, Thailand or Canggu, Bali tend to be bubbles where wealthy and overwhelmingly white foreigners congregate in cafes, co-working spaces, and other businesses that cater to their wishes and comforts in English. Hall thought things would be different if he built a destination for digital nomads in the small town of Madeira. Mobile remote workers can live like locals as well as locals: They can live in the same neighborhoods, eat at the same restaurants, and mingle in meetings coordinated by a “community manager.” Hall decided to present his idea to the Madeiran government.

It was an easy sale. Tourism in the archipelago has fallen sharply due to the Covid-19 travel bans banning travelers from Europe’s Schengen Area, and so Hall has framed digital nomads as a remedy. Portugal’s urban centers were already crowded with remote workers, but Madeira, less than a two-hour flight from Lisbon, was still under the radar. Hall told district officials that high-income professionals can transfer money to local businesses. All they needed to welcome them was an inviting infrastructure and a ready-made network for landing. If he built it, Hall promised, they would come.

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