After the deadly COVID-19 virus spread like wildfire across the globe, Nicolas Muszynski, a renewable energy specialist, and his wife, Marie-Laure Ollier, a freelance interpreter in the school system, yearned to relocate from their Montreal, Canada residence to a safer country from where they could live, work and educate their two young daughters.
When the couple read an announcement that Barbados was offering foreigners the chance to work remotely in an idyllic environment, they jumped at the opportunity. In July, Nicolas and Marie-Laure learned that Barbados, the birth place of super star Rihanna, had introduced the Barbados Welcome Stamp which made it possible for high net-worth visitors to live in the sun-drenched island for 12 months.
On September 3, Nicolas, director of Renewable Energy Storage with Renewable Energy Systems, touched down at Grantley Adams International Airport in Barbados. His workplace is now the family’s rented one-storey villa in a hotel resort and golf course on the southern coast of the island.
Nicolas described Barbados’ Welcome Stamp as the most fitting name.
“Everybody is very welcoming,” he said.
His wife Marie-Laure chimed in: “I would say it has been warm in many ways, like in all our interactions have been the sweetest…everybody is helping.”
The Welcome Stamp programme is a story of innovation–and survival.
Tourism is the lifeblood of the Bajan economy. By many estimates, Barbados earns about US$1 billion from travel and tourism from more than a million visitors each year. Tourism accounts for about 45 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). Some 30,000 workers work in the hospitality industry.
Indeed, tourism puts food on the tables of hotel workers, taxi operators, restaurant employees, duty free shop sales persons, local crafts people, guides at historic attraction sites, the maids and cleaners in the villas and apartments, the beach vendors and water sports operators–and many more.
Many taxi drivers in the island – the bulk of whose business comes from tourists – are now expressing fear that their vehicles might be repossessed by the financial institutions that loaned them money. Some taxi drivers said they fear being arrested by bailiffs for outstanding child support.
When COVID-19 forced Barbados to close its borders to tourists, the island’s leaders were moved to restore some semblance of life to the economy of this 166-square-mile island. Their first major proposal was the Welcome Stamp programme. The government hopes that thousands of remote workers would make Barbados their temporary home. For starters, individuals would have to fork out over a US$2,000 non-refundable fee for a visa. Family groups will pay US$3,000.
The programme, which targets middle to upper middle income professionals who earn their living outside of Barbados, allows individuals, families and even corporate leaders to spend up to 12 months here and work while enjoying the luxury, warmth and friendliness of the country.
Accommodations on the island include elegant hotels, guest houses and villas on beaches that are as white as chalk and kissed by the crystal clear, turquoise Caribbean Sea. Workers who want to take a break from their endless Zoom meetings can retire to some 80 pristine white-sand beaches a short drive away. The coral island’s coastline boasts historic lighthouses and some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
Barbados is among several countries attempting to lure visitors to their shores to work remotely. Portugal, Estonia, Bermuda, Georgia and the Czech Republic are among others seeking to make up for tourism and revenue shortfalls.
Barbadian officials argue that the Caribbean island nation has several competitive advantages, citing its high quality health care system, its world class internet service, no income tax for remote workers, and its intention to embrace families admitted under the Welcome Stamp programme.
Authorities in Barbados suggest that the presence of foreign workers could result in
hundreds of thousands of dollars in valuable foreign exchange–and millions more in potential earnings.
So far the country has earned more than $1 million in visa fees.
Nicolas and Marie-Laure attest to efficiency of the Welcome Stamp programme. “We only applied in mid-August and got the response three or four days later,” Marie-Laure said.
Said Nicolas, “So we had to put everything together, rent our house, pack our things, find a school, start looking for a place to live here, find plane tickets and get our tests organized to be able to arrive here with our COVID test.”
Nicolas’ new “office” is the ground floor balcony of a villa with a view of an immaculately manicured golf course.
Nicolas said he is very impressed with the internet infrastructure in Barbados, saying it is more reliable than his online service back home.
“It was seamless. I mean, to some extent, some of my video communications were better than they were at home. It definitely was easy,” he said.
The family has already made the time to visit a few of the island’s white sandy beaches, where their daughters, Elisabeth, 6 and Charlotte, 4, swam to their hearts’ delight. The family has also dined out at Chefette, the island’s leading fast foods restaurant chain where Rihanna savors her chicken roti when she is on island.
The Canadians have fallen in love with the roti as well along with the broasted chicken and cole slaw.
Nicolas and Marie-Laure say they are learning quickly how to adjust to the local lifestyle. Their daughters have also been accepted into a primary school near their new home.
Nicolas said his work colleagues back in Montreal are jealous of his new working conditions. Some of them have expressed interest in joining him.
More than a dozen foreign visitors have already arrived in Barbados to live and work remotely, officials said. Mere weeks after announcing the programme, the government has processed more than a thousand applications.
Authorities have declined to disclose the number of applications approved so far.
Deputy Chief Immigration Officer Margaret Inniss said 3 of the 12 remote workers were already on the island vacationing or working, but could not return home due to the closure of their countries’ borders. Inniss said the trio applied for the Welcome Stamp visas and were successful.
“To this point we have had approximately 12 persons arriving in Barbados primarily from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada and those are our dominant markets,” she said. “You have a combination of both individuals and families. The individuals, the numbers far outweigh the family groups, but the families are coming as well; they are asking a lot of questions. Persons are looking to relocate their families while they are working remotely.”
Minister of Home Affairs Wilfred Abrahams announced that between July 18 and August 22, some 1,079 applications had been processed.
“Of these applications received, 764 were individuals and 315 were family bundle applications. The five leading countries seeking entry under this programme are the United States of America, United Kingdom, Canada, Nigeria and India,” Abrahams said.
He asaid the USA, Britain and Canada accounted for 788 applications, or about 73 per cent of the total submitted so far.
Some 60 applicants were rejected because they were seeking work in Barbados or suspected of being connected to drug networks. Abrahams said that although the Immigration Department was obligated to reject people convicted of crimes, he had the final say.
“What I wish for us to understand is that while we are being security conscious, the fact is, we have to be aware of what we are trying to do,” Abrahams said. “The intention of the Welcome Stamp is to fill the gap left by the failure of the tourism arrivals. So in some instances … we went behind that to look; and the dominant logic was, if that person came here as a tourist, would we turn them back based on it.”
In one case, immigration officials rejected an applicant who had been charged with driving under the influence. “Now obviously, driving under the influence does register as a criminal conviction in other places, but that is not the sort of person we are necessarily trying to exclude,” he said. ” We are trying to exclude people who are a threat to national security.”
He also gave the assurance that the government had no intention of pushing any working professionals out of the country when the 12 month period is up. In fact, Abrahams was happy to have them extend their working visit as long as they are not a financial burden on the State or have become a threat to national security.
Minister of Tourism, Senator Lisa Cummins, said several Barbadians living abroad have expressed in the new visa programme. “There is an incredible amount of interest in the Barbadian diaspora,” she said. “So you have a number of Barbadians who are living and working abroad…their families are with them…they have married and in some instances in particular, what we are seeing are Barbadians who are children of Barbadian citizens; and they are Barbadians by descent. Many of them have never lived or worked in Barbados.”
“The diaspora market is a significant area that we are going to be targeting in the coming weeks,” she said.
The local hotel sector is also reporting that it is ready to accommodate the potential influx of remote workers.
“As all locally-owned hotels and apartments, we have invested in tourism for the long haul,” said Davina Layne, executive director of the Intimate Hotels of Barbados (IHB), which represents owners of villas, guest houses and boutique hotels.
“Our properties are quite perfect to accommodate singles and couples who would come under this type of arrangement because our properties, generally speaking, the majority of them are self-contained. And as you would know, self-contained apartments have benefits that go along with them in terms of you having your own space,” she said.