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New York or New Zealand?: Why Down Under may offer the ultimate location for the age of remote working

The leading talent hubs of the past 25 years have mostly been dense, well-connected global cities with excellent restaurants and cultural offerings. That model is over for now.

The new demand is for a safe haven from COVID-19. The ideal for many westerners would be an English-speaking democracy with a developed economy, lots of space and nice weather, though not so hot that it catches fire in summer. Bring on New Zealand. The country’s isolation has suddenly gone from historic disadvantage to unique selling point.

By Monday, New Zealand had reported a total of just 19 deaths from the coronavirus (including 10 from a single cluster at a retirement home). That day, a month into a strict lockdown, there were only two confirmed new cases.

“We have the opportunity to do something no other country has achieved: elimination of the virus,” says prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

If New Zealand succeeds, then for the first time it will be a better place to do business than New York or London: the ultimate remote location for the age of remote working.

The country should use the pandemic to lure not just the world’s highest-value individual migrants but entire businesses.

Here’s the offer: Fly over your team, spend two weeks in quarantine, don’t even think of dodging our taxes, commit to staying at least a year, hire some local staff, set up in a little Eden with WiFi, and resume life with work meetings and schools and cafés as if the global nightmare never happened. Then see if you ever want to go home again.

New Zealand is the most soothing place I’ve ever been. I landed in August 1991 and I swear the running order of the first TV news I watched was: 1. All Blacks rugby team 2. Something about sheep 3. Mikhail Gorbachev retakes the Kremlin as KGB coup collapses.

Peter Thiel, co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc., was ahead of the curve.

Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

Even in the biggest city, Auckland, the air was almost disconcertingly clean and the few people on the streets were suspiciously friendly. When I opened a map, a man walked up and asked, “You lost something, mate?”

The pace was rustic partly because New Zealand exported its ambitious people. Years later, in London, a lowly Kiwi office mate of mine mentioned one morning that he’d just turned down a job as aide to New Zealand’s probable next prime minister. “Why?” I asked, bemused. “It would be like working for Leicester council,” he explained. By 2015, about one in eight university-educated New Zealanders was abroad, the highest share of any English-speaking country.

Every time something traumatic happens in the world, there is a huge increase in people wanting to emigrate to New Zealand

Though New Zealand imports as well as exports brains, it runs a relatively low-skilled, low-wage economy. Before COVID-19, high-end foreigners tended to sample the country chiefly as tourists or as billionaires buying apocalypse-proof boltholes. The archetype is PayPal’s co-founder Peter Thiel, who quietly acquired Kiwi citizenship in 2011 before buying a 193-hectare estate on Lake Wanaka.

He stands in a long tradition. “Every time something traumatic happens in the world, there is a huge increase in people wanting to emigrate to New Zealand,” says Jacques Poot, population economist at the University of Waikato. New Zealand’s safe-haven potential was noted by Kiwi researchers Matt Boyd and Nick Wilson in a prescient paper published last September: “The Prioritization of Island Nations as Refuges from Extreme Pandemics.”

But now that the apocalypse is here, New Zealand’s own model has stopped working. The tourists are gone and most Kiwis have had enough of billionaires. Ardern last week rejected a plan to give visas to foreigners willing to invest US$50 million into the country. “We don’t want people paying for passports,” she said, voicing the majority view of this egalitarian country.

Many Kiwis also worry about immigrants taking jobs. Yet New Zealand needs to do something drastic. Its lockdown was softened slightly on Tuesday — most businesses and schools can start reopening, while certain small gatherings are allowed — but unemployment has skyrocketed. What could revive the economy is mobile entrepreneurs who bring their business with them, and money to spend.

“That’s much better than a rich person just buying a tract of land,” says Philip Nel, political scientist at the University of Otago. Tens of thousands of highly trained Kiwis stuck in flats around the world would jump at the chance, but they’re just the start of it. Foreign tech firms, research departments and marketing agencies could airlift their locked-down staff to a gorgeous tourist resort with good coffee such as Queenstown, now devoid of tourists.

Perhaps New York, London and San Francisco will be thrumming again within months. Alternatively, normality might not return for years. The last time Europe became unlivable, under Hitler, thousands of artists, intellectuals and dissidents fled to the US.

New York’s New School alone brought together Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Roman Jakobson and Claude Lévi-Strauss. The city went from something of a backwater to leading global cultural centre.

That’s probably beyond New Zealand, but who knows: the world has turned upside down.

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd.

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