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Costa Rica jumps into the global competition for remote workers

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A lot of workers have discovered that their jobs can be done easily outside the office, even outside the U.S., and there are some countries taking advantage of that. They're racing to ease visa rules and regulations to lure these digital nomads. NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report from one of those countries, Costa Rica.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was a rare banana that first brought Myles Karp, then a young anthropologist, to Costa Rica.

MYLES KARP: While I was studying bananas and working on banana farms and traipsing around the jungle searching for bananas, I was also on the weekends making friends, getting to know the country.

KAHN: And figuring out ways to stay here longer, he says. Karp is now a marketing consultant. Enter the pandemic and more working from home, and Karp says he decided to give up his tiny New York City apartment and hectic lifestyle.

KARP: My New York apartment could fit into my Costa Rican kitchen.

KAHN: His entire condo in Costa Rica's capital, which he shares with a roommate, also fits his real passion in life, music. It's packed with guitars, a full-size wooden marimba, keyboards, an electric drum set and dozens of percussion instruments.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KARP: See, I didn't have enough physical space for this in my apartment in New York, for example. Coming here affords me more physical space and time.

KAHN: Karp has a 90-day tourist visa to stay in Costa Rica. Every three months, he has to leave the country to get a new one. Many foreigners just make regular runs to the border and back to stay in compliance. Costa Rican officials say they began noticing thousands of visitors doing just that and staying in the country for longer and longer stints.

GUSTAVO SEGURA: So that's when we said, OK, we need a law that provides a better incentive for these people.

KAHN: Gustavo Segura is Costa Rica's former tourism minister. Under the new law, travelers who make at least $3,000 a month from a foreign company will be able to get a one-year visa, renewable for an additional year. They can also open Costa Rican bank accounts, use their nation's driver's licenses and import needed work equipment tax-free. Segura says during the pandemic, Costa Rica's No. 1 industry, tourism, tanked at a loss of nearly $3 billion to the economy.

SEGURA: So the digital nomads could really give an important boost to these numbers without so many people.

KAHN: He says just 20,000 digital nomads coming to Costa Rica could reap a billion dollars in foreign income. But some Costa Ricans say giving foreigners such advantages is unfair to locals, who also do remote work and pay income taxes. And they worry the new law could create loopholes for international money launderers. Final details of the digital nomad law are still being worked out, but Daguer Hernandez, deputy director of Costa Rica's Migration and Foreigner Agency, says Costa Rica is already winning the race for remote workers.

DAGUER HERNANDEZ: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: We are already competing, he says. Costa Rica already has so much for visitors. The new law just makes it simpler. Transplanted New Yorker Myles Karp says Costa Rica is a great remote work home for now, although sometimes he thinks of going back home.

KARP: I've gotten lonely or actually missed structure and had too much free time and gone back to the States and started applying for jobs. And then I just imagine myself in an office again.

KAHN: And he says he runs back here every time.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Jose, Costa Rica.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "VALHALLA (NKLA REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.