Digital nomads are here to save Spain’s ghost towns

By Graham Keeley

How do you save a dying village? For the small community of Oliete in the mountainous Teruel region of eastern Spain, the answer was olive oil. In May 2014 the local community started ApadrinaUnOlivo.org – adopt an olive tree, in Spanish – to allow anyone in the world to sponsor an abandoned tree for €50. The money raised has been used to fund an NGO that has created thirteen jobs for people in the village. In return, sponsors get two litres of olive oil per year and, hopefully, forge a bond with the village.

To date some 7,000 people have sponsored a tree, with many visiting to find out more about life in Oliete. New arrivals to the village have even saved the school from closing – raising the student population from four when the project started to 13 today. But with a population of just 343, Oliete is still in terminal decline.

Back in 1910, the village was home to 2,533 people and had two cinemas and two dance halls. Now all is quiet. But that could be about to change. Oliete, like 30 other dying villages across Spain, has joined the National Network of Welcoming Villages for Remote Workers scheme, or Red Nacional de Pueblos Acogedores para el Teletrabajo, which aims to attract foreign workers with a new 12-month work visa for digital nomads.

Spain’s draft Startup Act, which was passed by the cabinet in July but has yet to receive parliamentary approval, aims to encourage digital nomads to repopulate rural villages. Among Spain's 8,131 municipalities, 3,403 are classed as at risk of dying out, according to the country’s National Statistics Institute. The digital nomad visa will be available from Spanish consulates around the world for workers from outside the European Union. And, once a person is living and working in Spain, they can apply for a residence permit to extend their stay for two years, which can then be renewed for a further two years.

Like other countries which have introduced nomad visas, Spain wants to lure foreign workers with tax incentives. They can pay the Spanish non-resident tax rate of 24 per cent on incomes of up to €600,000. By comparison, Spanish residential tax rates vary but can be as high as 45 per cent for top earners. It may still be amended, but the Startup Act has been greeted with support by most major political parties in Spain who see it as a way to help what is known as España Vaciada – or Emptied Spain.

And villages such as Oliete need all the help they can get. This is farming country, where people live off the land and raise sheep and pigs. Sun, sea and sand this is not. But that might just be the attraction for any digital nomads searching for tranquillity, a chance to get closer to nature and perhaps find the 'real Spain', whatever that may be. Nestled in the Rio Martin Cultural Park, trekkers come to see the griffon vultures, golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

Social life revolves around the Las Piscinas bar, one of three in the village. Seasonal workers come and go when the summer is over. Alberto Alfonso, one of the founders of ApadrinaUnOlivo.org, is also involved in preparing the village for the anticipated arrival of nomads who may have tired of city life. In the coming weeks a vacant three-storey building in the village will be converted into a coworking and coliving space as part of a €800,000. That funding is part of Wake Up Intelligent Villages, a programme which encourages nomads to come to Oliete by creating a new business infrastructure.

“What they might discover here is a life where they can see where free range eggs come from or they can see how we make the olive oil,” says Alfonso, a 44-year-old telecoms worker who lives in Oliete. “But there will also be a place for them to work and mix with others for however long they want to stay.” Carlos Blanco, a 39-year-old father-of-four, who works in a warehouse taking orders for the olive oil project, moved to the village from Barcelona four years ago. “My aquarium business ended because Catalonia declared itself independent in 2017 and all my orders from Spain were cancelled. We decided to come and live here. It’s much more tranquil, there is a better quality of life and it’s better for the children,” he says.