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Post-pandemic opportunity to reshape island economies

7 Sep 2020

A profound economic and cultural transition is taking place as the planet deals with problems such as climate change and unemployment in the wake of a global pandemic. While many are eager to "return to normal," the truth is that until we finally achieve it, "normal" may look quite different — especially for societies insular.


We also have seen a rapid shift to working from home in an increasingly digital environment and is likely to become irreversible for many. This move ensures companies can no longer depend on physical proximity — and islands may be the greatest winners of the transition.


Previously limited to small markets and a handful of dominant industries, due to high shipping and travel expenses which made it difficult to compete, many islands could not easily integrate with certain aspects of the global economy.


There is potential for transforming economies and introducing fresh possibilities as never before in an environment where so many utilities are provided online, a trend that was only accelerated by the pandemic. Are island industries planned for this latest post-pandemic economy?


The Digital Nomad Visa
To attract long-stay tourists who will contribute to the local economy and offset a slice of the missing tourist dollars, Barbados has gained global acclaim for its new "digital nomad" visa. Similar projects have been launched by other countries, including Bermuda, Croatia, and Estonia, and rivalry amongst tourist destinations is also increasing as some intrepid travelers become new pioneers. 


Many have argued that long-stay tourists are the solution for some countries but it remains to be seen the reality of taking these new visas. The fact is that long-stay visitors act quite differently than traditional travelers, and the expectation that they could offer a panacea could be unrealistic — or at least only a part of the solution. The major incentive is for local people to attract stable, high-wage jobs that will boost tax revenue and stimulate local businesses.

Re-engaging the diaspora
Can the remote-working phenomena not otherwise benefit islanders? With interconnectivity, islands have a chance to compete with the world stage like never before. The new remote-working movement is not only an incentive to recruit foreign workers but also to offer more high paid jobs to local people and attract returning emigrants.


Employers are now taking advantage of hiring the best potential staff from all around the world by expanding their operating time in various time zones for the workers.


Many in the diaspora who would have chosen to return cite job opportunities as a major barrier, and so here is a bigger opportunity than long-stay tourism that would bring economic empowerment.


A new business mindset
A shift to virtual networking will be an opportunity for island communities to reach outside of the domestic market and build "digital bridges" to other islands in all corners of the globe searching for similar solutions. New technologies are providing more ways for business people to enter foreign markets from home.


The move to digital media is a massive opportunity for islands previously seen as taking center stage on the "global periphery" and showcasing what they have to offer.


Businesses have to change their mindset and put digital media at the center; it's not enough to be "internet fit" but instead an "internet first" prerequisite.


Island organizations will reap the benefits of the post-pandemic world by having a national and geography-independent mentality.


Change brings opportunity
Islands around the world share some commonalities, including high energy and transportation prices, environmental vulnerabilities, and weak ecosystems based on a handful of industries — often tourism. These extraordinary times demand that the islands have a global outlook to connect and communicate with each other to pursue common ideas and work on the post-pandemic future.


One platform for this is the upcoming Virtual Island Summit, which offers a space to connect and engage island participants from Guam to Greenland, Jamaica to Jakarta, and St Kitts to Samoa to identify common solutions. Certainly, there are many differences between islands, but the many commonalities in the new remote-working world create a new market environment of better connectivity than ever before.


Digital media can be the catalyst for change, by supplying island communities with a platform to share their experiences and expertise with the rest of the world. This change happened slowly but under the global lockdown, which has forced everyone to change their lifestyle, has accelerated. Although digital bridges can already be more important than any other infrastructure, it is equally important to improve how we think to fully leverage the new opportunities.