Cebu or not Cebu? Startup Oasis provides digital nomad support in Philippines

Beach in Cebu

This might sound cliche, but the Philippines really is a name that conjures up images of idyllic beaches and islands (there are more than 7,000), probably to a larger extent than any other Southeast Asian destination, barring Thailand. Throughout the years the country has proved a strong lure for those seeking an escape or a chance to “find themselves”.

In the 1990s, back when the fax machine was the height of sophistication, young author Alex Garland was inspired to write his Gen-X classic The Beach after spending six months in El Nido (while the book itself was set in Thailand). And the rest, as they say, is history, with Garland more recently directing Oscar-winning Ex Machina. Such is the creative power of getting away from it all (while I’m admittedly still waiting for my own lightning bolt of inspiration).

Cebu City is a little more accessible than mystical El Nido, and that’s no bad thing. Budding entrepreneurs can easily escape the pressure cookers that are Hong Kong and Singapore by flying over to Cebu for the weekend, where thanks to Startup Oasis they can get an idea off the ground before swimming with manta rays (soothing for those pummelled brain cells).

Startup Oasis as the name suggests, is a sanctuary for startups, providing co-working, co-living and business support from a large villa (almost like a cross between The Apprentice and a tropical Big Brother, minus the television cameras).

Experienced designers and developers will take on an idea, shape it, and turn it into a web or mobile product, interacting with resident entrepreneurs throughout.

There are three packages available: prototype development for two weeks, a one-month summer camp for those “sleeping on an idea for too long”, and a three-month programme for existing entrepreneurs who need an extra pair of hands.

And thereafter, who knows? Perhaps we will see a new Alex Garland emerge, inspired by Cebu and fit for the post-capitalist age. How does an augmented reality version of swimming with whale sharks sound?

The Beach 20 years later: spirit lives on in digital nomad tribes

Matinloc Beach, El Nido, Philippines

Today is a remarkable anniversary. Alex Garland’s The Beach was published 20 years ago (younger people might recognise Alex as the director of Ex Machina). What’s remarkable is that it’s only been 20 years. The world has changed almost beyond recognition since: ICQ (yes, that long ago), Google, the iPod, MySpace, Facebook, the smartphone, the Millennial, Tesla, the selfie, Instagram, #sorrynotsorry. It has been a period of enormous change, for better or for worse.

Looking at it now, The Beach evokes “end of an era” and end of innocence feelings, and not just because disillusioned Richard left the hidden paradise he called home. It really was the fin de siecle: the end of the 1990s, the end of the 20th century, and the end of simpler times as we knew them, when care-free hedonism and dial-up connections reigned.

Soon after reading the now cult classic and watching the Hollywood movie when they emerged, I travelled to Southeast Asia for the first time. I felt like a novice backpacker like Richard, armed with a knackered copy of the Rough Guide and a traditional camera with 3 rolls of film (no digital cameras then, let alone smartphones), staying at cheap Malaysian guesthouses, popping into “cyber cafes”, and staring wide-eyed at the sheer exoticism of the Far East, as the region was still called then in that quaint pre-globalisation way.

Seven years later, I unexpectedly returned to Kuala Lumpur – this time in a suit, my own “innocence” lost. And this time, I stayed.

Hopping about frequently in Southeast Asia, I never forgot The Beach and the hope that there was a mystical idyll out there somewhere, buried in the South China Sea or hidden in the Indonesian archipelago. I was fortunate enough to encounter extraordinary beaches and fascinating characters, but The Beach as described in the book, a tropical shangri-la, was forever elusive.

And yet, while the untainted paradise beach will likely stay a myth, the utopian spirit of The Beach lingers on. Its post-911, post-capitalism incarnation can be seen in the form of co-working spaces, filled with digital nomads who get about using apps such as Airbnb and Waze.

Like The Beach’s main character, digital nomads also flock to Thailand (although the book’s original location was The Philippines), to places like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Krabi, making connections and living the dream. And with the passing of Richard’s generation into middle age gloop and suburbia, the baton has been passed to globetrotting Millennials, themselves looking for purpose.

Travel might no longer be romantic, as it surely was pre-internet, but the essence of what made The Beach special – the pursuit of a more spiritual, community-minded and more “authentic” alternative to everyday life – endures to this day.