For decades, Spain has had two interconnected demographic problems affecting rural areas: the fact that 80 percent of the population occupies only 30 percent of the country’s area, alongside the abandonment of about 7,000 villages. In addition, as the residents get older, there are numerous rural villages with no people under the age of 15. These shifts in demographic distribution don’t only affect Spain, and many other European countries such as Italy are in much the same situation.
A striking example in Spain is Olmeda de la Questa, located 120 kilometers east of Madrid, with 35 permanent residents and an average age of 75. This village was actually dubbed Spain’s oldest village, not because of its history, but because of the age of the population!
Even more extreme is La Estrella in the province of Teruel, which has become famous for having just two remaining inhabitants. They have become known because they are the sole guardians of a small sanctuary and thus get visitors and pilgrims just once a year.
Clearly, officials need to take action to avoid some rural communities from dying out completely, and Spain got creative.
If the Italians can do it, we can do it
One of the first steps was, like similar schemes in Italy, to sell off plots of land at very low prices. This was intended to attract new residents who were looking for peace and quiet in beautiful countryside, with no need to invest what they normally would have to pay for a holiday home in more popular coastal areas.
Olmeda de la Cuesta was, seven years ago, one of the first to sell off eight plots of land for just that purpose. The most expensive sold for 1,200 euros for a plot just over two hundred square metres – enough space, according to the mayor of the village, to build a three story house and plant a garden. Apparently there was more interest from South American countries, the USA and Russia than from Spaniards themselves.
That measure alone didn’t solve the problem of rejuvenation, so some enterprising bachelors from Castellbo organised “tours” in the hopes that a few unmarried ladies might want to stick around. The result is unknown.
Another idea was a proposal for an ambitious TV reality show called Ruralmind. The plan was to let 40 contestants from all over Spain compete to launch and develop business plans from and for villages with less than 5,000 inhabitants. A co-producer of the show, Patricia Garcia Gómes, explained that the idea behind it was to change the perception of the nature of rural life from rural tourism and agriculture to somewhere to start a new business, with the insight that in the 21st century a business start up is possible from anywhere. However, the show apparently never got off the ground.
Welcome, digital nomads
Now Spain has placed her hopes of reviving rural villages on digital nomads. In July 2020, the government approved the draft of what is called The StartUp Act, aimed at providing a new 12-month visa to live and work in Spain for digital nomads. Once in place, the visa will be available at Spanish consulates and embassies all over the world for workers who are from outside the European Union whether they are freelance or working for companies outside of Spain.
The visa will be renewable for another two years and also give the “nomads” the right to apply for residency. The incentive to bring these people to the empty villages of Spain is tax relief. They will be liable to pay a reduced non-resident tax of 24 percent on an income of up to 600,000 euros as opposed to the Spanish resident tax rate of up to 45 percent for top earners.
Spanish policy makers are betting nomads will like life in the tranquil beauty of these abandoned villages so much that they will eventually bring their families and settle for good – even if, as residents, they will have to pay higher taxes – and thus bring new life to these places.
To further this purpose, some 30 villages have already joined the Network of Welcoming Villages with relocation packages and offers of co-working spaces and high speed internet: in short, everything a digital nomad needs to make a living. Two towns in the province of Malaga, Benarraba and Tolox, have already joined the network, with the latter having an estimated weekly cost of living of 150 euros.
Other members are Orele in Aragon and, for a year round mild climate, Tejeda on Gran Canaria. It is estimated that the visa will be available sometime in the spring and will favour start ups.
As time goes by, it’s also likely even more villages in other abandoned parts of Spain will join the network, thus giving interested applicants even more and attractive locations to choose from.
About the author:
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel-and-lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits, among many other publications. After several years in Turkey, she now lives on Spain’s Costa Blanca.
Read more about Spain in our Dispatches archive here.
Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an international attorney-turned-travel and lifestyle writer based in Spain. She has contributed to BBC/Travel, several in-flight magazines, TripSavvy (Spain) and TravelAwaits among many other publications.