Barbados hopes a new visa will attract remote workers : The Indicator from Planet Money The Barbados economy depends on tourism, so travel restrictions have been devastating. But the island nation has come up with an innovative stopgap: A visa that lets visitors work remotely from Barbados for a year.
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WFH From Barbados

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WFH From Barbados

WFH From Barbados

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

DARIAN WOODS, HOST:

Shawn Parker (ph) makes charts and graphs for a real estate company. She's a business intelligence analyst living in Charlotte, N.C., And at the very start of this year, she had a wish.

SHAWN PARKER: I said to myself out loud, I would love to just go to a beautiful island by myself and just sit on the beach and be one with self.

WOODS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

WOODS: She had lived in Charlotte for years. Her only son had just graduated college.

PARKER: So I didn't have to pay tuition anymore. I didn't have to help with, you know, school supplies or groceries or whatever. So I just kind of put - I put it into the universe.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

But the universe, you know, it had other plans. The pandemic hit. Borders closed around the world. It was a really hard time for international travel. So Shawn carried on working remotely from Charlotte until this summer, when she happened to be scrolling through Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Barbados is a beautiful island in the Caribbean.

PARKER: I saw the advertisement, and I was like, oh, that looks interesting (laughter).

SMITH: There's this turquoise water, and there's, like, this really happy man with a cocktail shaker.

WOODS: He looks pretty happy. I really like the horses in the ocean.

SMITH: How could you not want to go there?

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Eat food in paradise. The birthplace of rum and the home of Rihanna - welcome to Barbados.

WOODS: This is her dream. And she would have seen an ad just like this one on Facebook, which was advertising the Welcome Stamp visa. And this whole scheme, it calls out to people all over the world, to people like Shawn, fly into Barbados, please, but don't come as a tourist because, you know, they want to keep the coronavirus out. But stay here for an entire year. Set up your laptop and just work remotely for your employer back home.

PARKER: And I'm like, you know, I'm just sitting here working this job, and Barbados is, like, there, and it's beautiful. Why not give it a shot? Why not go?

WOODS: Why not?

PARKER: See what happens - why not?

SMITH: There are all kinds of advantages to this. There are the white beaches. There's the cocktail shaker and the horses on the beach. There is no time zone difference. But there was one obstacle. Shawn had to sell this to her boss.

PARKER: It was kind of nerve-racking because I wasn't sure what they were going to say.

SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

WOODS: And I'm Darian Woods. Today's show - working without borders. Will there be a wave of people dialing into the morning meeting from tropical beaches, maybe also while riding a horse? Barbados is betting there will be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Global tourism, as you might expect, has been way down this year. The number of people going overseas on vacation declined by a massive 65% in the first half of the year. But this hit was especially bad for Barbados. The Caribbean island nation has built its economy around tourism. And normally this is a really great business. More than a million tourists typically visit Barbados every year. And there are all these businesses that depend on these tourists - hotels and restaurants and, like, local farms that supply the restaurants. And all of these people count on the tourism sector. It makes up about a third of Barbados' GDP. As people started to halt their plans for trips to places like Barbados, those jobs and businesses, they took a huge hit.

WOODS: So the country's prime minister, Mia Mottley, she had an idea. And I spoke to a Eusi Skeete about this. He's the U.S. director at the organization that promotes tourism to Barbados.

EUSI SKEETE: The prime minister recognized that we have an opportunity to welcome these individuals who are working remotely to come to Barbados, enjoy all that the island has to offer and still be able to work. So what it did is that it allowed us to look beyond a short-term visitor and create long-stay visitors on the island.

WOODS: The government developed a special new visa, 12 months long, and there are just a few conditions. You have to work for your employer back home, earning at least $50,000 a year. That is, you know, you're not getting a job in Barbados. Also, you pay a $2,000 application fee. And you need your own health insurance, which travel insurance can typically cover. Once your application is approved, bam, you can set up your laptop in a hammock overlooking the Caribbean.

SMITH: On horseback.

WOODS: Yep. Hammock or horseback - take your pick.

SMITH: And, you know, probably not very surprisingly, Darian, after having seen this ad, over 2,000 people like Shawn have applied for the Welcome Stamp visa. And it doesn't sound like a ton, but Eusi explained why this is actually a really important economic boost.

SKEETE: They have to find a place to live. They have to eat. They're certainly going to participate in a lot of the attractions and activities. In addition to that, they now become - because I can guarantee you once they come in through the Welcome Stamp in Barbados, they're not going to want to leave. So they also become a part of the voice that tells their friends and families that you must visit Barbados. And I think that then has even longer-term benefits. And I think that's certainly a win-win.

SMITH: But, of course, this question comes up in my head, right? Like, could it really be this easy? I mean, if it is, maybe the entire population of the world is going to end up in the Caribbean. But to check this out, we went to talk to Tim Burgess. He's the co-founder of an international workforce company called Shield GEO. He says working internationally is not always so simple.

TIM BURGESS: There's a whole lot of compliance and, I guess, HR, sort of administrative issues that people don't think about in this context.

SMITH: Tim says there are two main obstacles to international working from home. So first of all, if you were going for a long length of time, like at least six months, you have to start thinking about taxes.

BURGESS: If you were, for example, going to Mexico, you might become a tax resident in Mexico. Your employer might say, hold on, now we're liable for having employee in Mexico.

SMITH: And, of course, this is not just income tax.

BURGESS: France is a great example. Pension, state health insurance are all the different components of Social Security. If you moved from the U.S. to France, the employer cost goes from about 15% on top of the salary to 47 to 50% on top of the salary.

WOODS: So it's not as easy as just going to a WeWork in Paris.

BURGESS: It's a very gray area.

WOODS: Barbados got around this particular snag. They said you do not need to pay taxes in Barbados with this particular visa. Just keep paying your taxes and Social Security to your home country. But Tim raises a second issue, which is if you are, say, working for an American company but want to work overseas, the company you work for will start to need to comply with your new country's regulations and labor laws. Like, Stacey, maybe you'd be forced to take the minimum 24 vacation days required by German law if you relocate to Berlin, which would be sad.

SMITH: Yeah. I mean, that would be a struggle, but I would be up for tackling that.

WOODS: Yeah.

SMITH: You know - so Barbados really turned this gray area into a very simple and clear invitation to remote workers. They saw this opportunity. And so, Darian, you know, we started talking about this, and we were wondering, like, is this the wave of the future?

BURGESS: Yeah. I mean, I hope so. I really hope so. And my hope is that people take it up, you know, and that it would be a really wonderful initiative and a great model that people could follow.

SMITH: And a lot of other countries have realized there is a huge opportunity here. Estonia has launched its own visa. So has Bermuda.

WOODS: And so Shawn, the business intelligence analyst from Charlotte, she's a test case. Her company said yes, and her visa was approved.

SMITH: And the horses and hammocks await.

WOODS: Exactly.

PARKER: I was excited. I just - I couldn't believe it. I was like, oh, my God. This is actually going to happen.

WOODS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: I'm excited, too. Shawn paid her $2,000 visa fee, and she now has her flights booked for just a couple of weeks from now.

WOODS: What are you looking forward to most about Barbados?

PARKER: The food (laughter).

WOODS: Yeah.

PARKER: The food, tasting some new flavors. Their flying fish is like their go-to national dish. It's something called flying fish, which I have no idea what that means.

WOODS: All right. See you, Stacey. I'm going to go to Barbados and see whether the fish really do fly.

SMITH: Yes. And also, I think THE INDICATOR might need to come, just for factual verification.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

WOODS: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. Paddy Hirsch is our editor, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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