(CNN) — While most nations in the European Union have kept their borders sealed against non-European visitors during the pandemic, Croatia has been receiving arrivals from the United States and many other countries.
Summer saw it allow almost anyone to vacation on its beautiful Adriatic coastline and enjoy its stunning islands and Dubrovnik, the city of “Game of Thrones.” Even now, visitors from outside the EU are welcome, as long as they are tested for COVID-19 or quarantined.
Now Croatia is making things easier for people who want to stay longer: modifying its immigration laws to grant one-year residence permits to remote digital workers from outside the European Union, as long as they do not require tourist visas to enter.
While other destinations like Dubai have paid a price for keeping their borders wide open, Croatia is convinced that fostering tourism in the long term is a success.
The new rules began on January 1 and the first applicants have already arrived.
On January 15, American Melissa Paul had the unexpected honor of becoming Croatia’s first official digital nomad under the new law. Since then, she has been involved in a series of interviews with the media from national newspapers and television networks.
“In fact, I have worked remotely for 15 years, I own my own company, but I have contracts with companies all over the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico,” she told CNN.
Paul, a marketing consultancy who produces websites, blog articles, newsletters, and manages social media for art and design businesses, events, weddings and hospitality, had already experienced life in Croatia before receiving his one-year permit.
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“When I moved to Croatia, being a digital entrepreneur allowed me to continue to earn a living while living and traveling the country and Europe,” she says.
Paul initially moved to Croatia with her Croatian-American husband, whose parents hail from the island of Krk. When the couple divorced, he learned that he did not have many options to continue living in Croatia as a resident. But the new law opened a window of opportunity for him.
Now he runs his business from the kitchen table in a house in the hilltop walled town of Labin on the Adriatic Istrian peninsula in northwestern Croatia.
“There is a poignant quality to Labin,” she said of her new home. “From the friendly people, the large number of artists who work here, as well as the mix of history, culture and modern industry. All in a beautiful, central location. It is perfect for me and I love it more every day.
European-style bureaucracy was something Paul was already familiar with, but the application process still involved a paper hunt.
“I knew the more prepared I was, the better,” she says. “But there were many documents that I had to provide detailing the work I do, where my clients are and showing that my company is active, I have the financial means to work independently, health insurance and a place to live. Since I’ve been a freelancer at the location for years, this was all easy for me to provide.
Paul sees his extended stay in Croatia as an opportunity to get to know the country better and experience it first-hand, “not in the rush of a few days, but slowly savoring it over months or years.”
A boost for Croatia’s tourism industry
The idea of introducing a residence permit for digital nomads was the brainchild of Jan de Jong, a Dutch businessman and investor who has lived in Croatia since 2006.
In July, he sent an open letter to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković on LinkedIn, pointing out the potential economic benefits of welcoming remote workers.
Plenković got the message, and after consulting with De Jong, relevant changes to immigration law were adopted in December 2020.
For De Jong, welcoming digital nomads as long-term tourists is win-win for everyone.
“Croatia is a safe country with a Mediterranean lifestyle that many digital nomads will find attractive,” he says. “It is a very warm and welcoming country and the hospitality of the people is excellent.”
Then there is the weather, the amazing nature and more than 1,000 islands. People speak very good English. There is also a good internet connection and good travel connections with the rest of Europe. Lastly, life is affordable here.
At the same time, this new potential for year-round tourism could boost struggling local economies and Croatia’s tourism industry, which has been affected by the pandemic despite the open door policy.
Premises that rent to tourists and new businesses that cater to digital nomads are ready to profit.
“Well-paid digital nomads will spend their income here, which will be great for the service industry,” says de Jong. “In addition, through the VAT they pay on everything they buy, they will generate additional income.”
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History and resources
Mexicans Ariel Medel and Claudia Sau have been living in Split since November 2020. Shortly after settling in this historic coastal city on the Dalmatian Coast, they heard about the Government’s digital nomad plans.
Medel has been a freelance comic book artist, illustrator, and graphic designer for the past 15 years. The appeal of working as a digital nomad grew as the couple made lengthy visits to Europe twice a year.
“I think that becoming a digital nomad was a natural step, given that I love to travel and learn about the culture and history of other countries, an interest that my wife shares with me,” he says of his decision to apply for the permit.
The couple have already explored the capital Zagreb, where they first arrived. They then moved to the coastal cities of Zadar, Šibenik and Pula. As for many long-term travelers, the old port of Split had the greatest appeal.
“We decided to stay in Split because in addition to being a beautiful city on the coast, and having a lot of history, it is big enough to have all the resources we need without being too big,” says Medel.
From Singapore to Zagreb
After making an extended stop in Croatia last fall, long-term traveler Jane Tor from Singapore has devised a plan to return in March 2021. This time, with her laptop in tow, she will apply to stay long-term as a digital nomad. .
Tor works for a technology company that leads and manages projects with startups working in the education, fintech, digital marketing and travel industries.
“I arrived in Croatia the first week of October, just because I had been to Albania before and couldn’t fly to any EU country without going through Croatia,” says Tor. “My initial plan was to stay for two weeks, which was extended to 84 days.”
She was drawn to the Croatian coastline and the opportunities for windsurfing, diving and hiking. Her enthusiasm attracted her parents, who accompanied her on a five-week vacation.
Together they explored the turquoise lakes and waterfalls of the Krka and Plitvice national parks, which are declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. The coastal city of Zadar was the highlight.
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“Coming from Singapore, a sunny island that is also a city-state, it attracts me to be near the sea,” he says. “I really enjoy walking, so walking by the sea in Zadar was amazing. You can walk for a few hours from one port to another, ending in a bar at sunset.
Although Zadar would be his preferred place to live his digital nomad experience, Tor is planning to move to Zagreb.
“I liked walking around its old town in the fall and seeing the colors change,” he says. And I love the local markets in every city. Going there every day to buy local products was a good routine. Croatia is also small enough to be able to be on a quiet island within two or three hours of driving from Zagreb.
“I definitely want to explore the islands around Zadar and Split, go kitesurfing and go hiking.”
Compared to Singapore, Tor considers Croatia to be less populated and much cheaper to live in. He was also able to connect with expat communities that encourage the creation of new businesses.
“I’ve only met great people in Croatia, especially from the tech industry, which I’m from,” he says of his first experience there.
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Pros and cons of moving as a digital nomad to Croatia
The pros and cons of each country looking to attract digital nomads is a hot topic on online forums.
Croatia has many advantages: it does not require nomads to pay income tax and the residence permit is valid for one year, although the extensions require one to leave the country for six months.
Some, however, find the police verification requirement will be an additional complication.
Sara Dyson from Expat in Croatia offers one-on-one consulting to anyone considering moving and has seen an increase in inquiries from digital nomads.
“The only complaint so far is that the digital nomad permit does not put people on the path to permanent residence or citizenship,” he says. “But this permit is currently the best option for a third-country national to apply for residency.”
“If someone still wants to come to Croatia, this handicap does not deter them. If someone is considering another country, then they are taking a break to assess whether Croatia is the right choice.