September 14, 2021 08:11
Spain's countryside is suffering a slow demise after the long exodus of its rural population but Sárnago hopes to avoid this fate -- for now. Nestled in the mountainous region of Soria north of Madrid, it reached its peak in 1950 when there were 462 permanent residents, mostly living off farming.
But the lure of city life and better paid jobs finally took its toll when the last resident left by 1979. Campaigners have now saved the hamlet by attracting five permanent residents, many working remotely or coming for short stays.
Spain hopes to help save struggling communities like Sárnago by offering visas and tax incentives to digital nomads, who work from their laptops around the world, to encourage them to live in what many here have come to describe as España Vacia, or "Empty Spain." The draft start-up law will offer 12-month visas to non-European Union residents.
◆ Tax Incentives
Like many other countries which have introduced nomad visas, Spain wants to entice foreign workers with low tax rates. They would be eligible for the Spanish non-resident tax rate of 24 percent on incomes of up to $711,000 per year. In comparison, Spanish residential tax rates are as high as 45 percent depending on earnings, according to data from Spain's treasury ministry.
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 be renewed for another two years. The law, which could be amended but has received support from all major political parties, is an attempt to address Spain's rural decline.
Among 8,131 Spanish municipalities, 3,403 are classed as at risk of dying out, according to the country's National Statistics Institute -- almost 43 percent. Spain also wants to encourage companies and entrepreneurs to bring badly needed investment to rural parts of the country that are struggling economically. So, will digital nomads be drawn to live in tiny remote villages like Sárnago?
"I hope that we could attract foreigners to come and live here for a time at least," José María Carrascosa, president of the Friends of Sárnago Association, told VOA. The village is 280 km north of Madrid and most people in the region work as farmers. "We have reasonably good Internet connection -- 4G -- for a rural area so you can send emails but when you want to do a Zoom meeting it is a bit more of a problem. We also have a co-working place."
◆ A Quieter Life
Carrascosa discloses that anyone who wants to spend time in his village should be prepared for a quieter social life. The only bar closed years ago and the nearest school and shops are a 5-km drive away in a bigger village.
Sárnago is among 30 other dying villages that joined the National Network of Welcoming Villages for Remote Workers, RNPAT, a group working with the Spanish government to attract workers to live in the countryside.
"We have found that people are much more enthusiastic about working online because of the pandemic. We have seen that more people have moved from cities to small villages," Ricardo Ortega, RNPAT president, noted in an interview with VOA. "We believe this visa may tempt people to come and enjoy the Spanish way of life, away from cities and the coast. They can see the real Spain."
In an effort to redress decades of rural malaise, Spain's leftist government introduced a $11.9 billion plan in March that includes measures to improve internet connection in the country and build a series of co-working spaces in small villages.
Alejandro Macarrón Larumbe, who heads the Demographic Renaissance Foundation in Spain which seeks to redress rural depopulation, said the government must address practical problems of connectivity with poor Wi-Fi, infrastructure, and amenities.
"This visa scheme could help attract foreign talent and create momentum," Macarrón said in an interview with VOA. "We have a lot of rural villages which are lovely. But we must be realistic so probably there is little chance people would want to live too far from airports."
Tim Acheson could be a poster boy for Spain's digital nomad scheme. The British fintech specialist recently bought a town house with his wife in María, a village of 1,000 inhabitants in southeastern Spain. The couple, who travel from London to Spain about once a month, are now considering moving permanently to their new home.
"The internet is better in Maria than it is in London -- and I live next to an internet exchange in London," he told VOA. "Our house is about two hour's drive from Alicante airport, so it is well connected. No one speaks English there, but we are learning the language fast and everyone is so friendly to us."
Acheson and his wife became residents in Spain last year which means that they cannot take full advantage of the nomad visa. "I really hope that Spain makes this nomad visa work. They have one of the best internet systems in Europe and a great quality of life," he added.
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