Tourism destinations and long-distance control

A reflection starting from the cases of Sumba and Belitung

//Tourism destinations and long-distance control
Tourism destinations and long-distance control2018-08-26T07:26:21+00:00

Project Description

Tourism destinations can be viewed as networks of relationships between nodes having varying power. Some of the nodes influence and control other elements of the system (Beritelli & Laesser, 2011; Nicholls, Amelung & Student, 2017). Considering the expansion of capitalistic systems in previously isolated destinations, relationships of exploitation, dependency and control are becoming more evident in developing destinations. Because of the often non-physical presence of controlling actors in the destination, tourism can be seen as a form of long distance control. Long distance control can be exerted in different ways, but some conditions facilitate its execution. I propose that destinations that have more structured networks and formalized economies and governance systems are more efficient and economically developed but at the same time more dependent on outsiders and less self-sufficient.

To argue this proposition, it is useful to provide a brief overview on destinations as networks and on how long-distance control mechanisms are related to concepts inspired from Marxist political economy. Following this, the characteristics of two developing tourism destinations in Indonesia, Sumba and Belitung, will be compared and used as a point of reflection on development and long-distance control. Finally, the clash between modern development and self-sufficiency will be questioned.

Tourism destinations as networks

For the purpose of this essay, a system-network approach is used to conceptualize tourism destinations: destinations are shaped by complex and dynamic networks of power-laden relationships between different nodes having varying degrees of power (Beritelli & Laesser, 2011; Nicholls, Amelung & Student, 2017). Nodes include local stakeholders belonging to private and public sectors but also external players and forces who exert direct and indirect power on elements of the network, allowing certain outcomes and hindering others. (Scott, Baggio & Cooper, 2008). Also, non-human elements, such as technological devices, are part of the system because “they absorb different features of their allegedly non-technological environments” (Law, 1986, p. 4). External forces that control the destination system can be exemplified with transnational companies and foreign investors that enter in previously isolated territories, penetrating their markets and altering them. Non-human elements, on the other hand, comprise devices and technologies. Instances of these can be roads and facilities but also digital technology devices, such as smartphones and computers. In the next paragraphs, the way in which capitalistic development influences existing destination networks is elaborated.

Marxist political economy and long-distance control

The nature of Capitalism and its relationship with tourism development

The entrance and expansion of capitalistic forms of tourism development in previously isolated destinations can be analyzed through the lens of Marxist political economy. Capitalism, for its very nature, is driven by a continuous and relentless search for new profitable outlets that allow its self-expansion (Bianchi, 2010). Marx (1974) argues that one of the essential attributes of capitalism is the dispossession of the workers’ control of the means of production by the capitalists. In this way, people and communities that used to be self-sufficient without working for wages become dependent on money and on their employers. Whereas Marx himself focused more on the class divide and the inequalities created by the capitalistic system, early Marxist theorists saw this on a global scale with imperialistic colonization, in which western nations exported capital to colonies and exploited resources and labour to make profit and accumulate capital (Bianchi, 2010).

Building on this first considerations, neo-Marxist scholars take this to extremes using the dependency theory, which contends that the entrance of foreign capital in indigenous economies destroys them and locks them in a state of dependency and underdevelopment (Bianchi, 2010). This is achieved via the appropriation of economic surplus by the capitalist investors and the domination of key sectors and markets. More in general, it is argued that forces such as globalization and neoliberalism shape the economy but also other characteristics of a destination, including culture and traditions, also by means of commodification of the host society (Bianchi, 2010). Tourism has often been linked to new forms of imperialism and colonialism, as similar relationships of exploitation take place (Buzinde, Kalavar & Melubo, 2014; Pastran, 2014). Also, many of the ex-colonies not seldom become favorite destinations for tourists coming from the ex-colonizers countries (Hall & Tucker, 2004).

Even if most of the discussion around exploitation and dependency focuses either on relationship within or between countries, it is clear that the phenomenon is multidimensional and can take place across different boundaries. In general, individual and groups lose their self-sufficiency and become dependent on outsiders. Because of this, tourism can be seen as a manifestation of long distance control: a few key players, often located outside of the destination itself, control the flows of tourists into the destinations and sway the destination’s characteristics in particular directions, impacting the local society, economy and culture. In the remainder of this essay, the focus will be shifted towards long distance control and the mechanisms that facilitate its enactment.

What contributes to long-distance control?

It is interesting to think about the factors which make a destination more susceptible to long distance control. Law (1986), using as a point of discussion the case of the Portuguese domination of the spice trade in the 16th century, contends that documents, devices and drilled people were crucial for a successful implementation of long distance control in the Indian Ocean. With documents, Law refers to the meticulous way in which information and instructions have to be standardized and made accessible to the people who need them. Devices relate to the technological objects that are needed to facilitate the achievement of the desired ends. Drilled people is about the way people have to be trained and disciplined to follow orders and instructions, not to make mistakes and not to drift away from a predefined course of action.

Law (1986) argues that these three factors contribute to the creation of an efficient network of passive agents – meaning that they do not take initiative outside of their role –  which makes it possible to exert control on something being geographically distant. The key point behind this is that a solid structure of heterogeneous elements is necessary to ensure undistorted communication. Law (1986) argues that, beyond documents, devices and drilled people, other factors might contribute to the creation of a structure which facilitates long distance control mechanisms.

Starting from this consideration, I propose that different forms of network structure and economic and social formalization make a destination more or less susceptible to long-distance control, not only in terms of undistorted communication but also effective implementation. To illustrate this, I present the cases of Sumba and Belitung, two emerging Indonesian tourism destinations. Those are compared in terms of type and structure of social networks, power and authority systems, status of formalization of the economy, infrastructure and telecommunications. In doing this, I draw from my personal experience in Indonesia during IFP and data and information I acquired via interviews and observations.

Long-distance control: the cases of Sumba and Belitung

Sumba and Belitung are profoundly different in many aspects. To start with, in Sumba tourism is just at its dawn and only in the last few years outsiders are entering in the island: examples of this are the Sumba Hospitality foundation and a handful of foreign owned hotels and resorts. On the other hand, in Belitung tourism development has been actively facilitated and supervised by the central government since 2008. For this reason, numerous hotels and resorts, including international chains, are concentrated in the area around Tanjung Pandan. This already suggests a larger extent of long distance control in Belitung, since the presence of more outsiders expropriates the locals of their means of production and makes the economy of the island less self-sufficient.

network structure

Sumba is characterised by informal and fragmented social networks. Most of the relationships, also in the tourism sector, are between friends and family members and through personal connections. Some parts of the networks are relatively isolated, meaning that there are people living in secluded villages and speaking different local languages who have little to no contact with the other parts of the network.

In contrast, Belitung is typified by mainly formalized and comprehensive social networks facilitated by the widespread use of digital technologies. Accommodation providers and other business collaborate and communicate in systematic ways. Traditional villages are not isolated and are well embedded in the network. With this, I want to hint at the fact that the achievement of undistorted communication is more difficult in Sumba, where the intended message can be lost, misinterpreted or not delivered to everyone. Hence, controlling people becomes challenging. The opposite applies to Belitung, where all the components of the network can be reached with relatively little effort.

power and authority

In Sumba, different forms of power and authority co-exist and are not always disposed in a hierarchical way. The local official government has to face informal but strong local power authorities, including village chiefs and elders. Official legislation also has to deal with the influence of the traditional customs. For example, official land registration systems started to be used only in the last years, taking over the still existing usucaption practices, according to which if someone occupies the land long enough can possess it.  According to one interview, to obtain land, a foreign investor not only has to deal with the local government, but also respect the local traditions and negotiate with the villages’ elders, being subject to their authority.

The situation in Belitung is radically different: the government has full authority and, for the most part, is capable of enforcing laws and regulations. This is also due to the relatively limited alternative informal forms of power and a more hierarchical governance. An implication of this is that oppositely to Sumba, where official legal apparatuses have limited reach and enforcement possibilities, most of Belitung’s population constituting the networks can be controlled.

formalization of the economies

Similarly, major differences in the structure of the economies of the two islands can be seen. In Sumba the economy is almost entirely informal: transportation, food markets and accommodation providers most of the time do not need to comply to rules and regulations. Transactions are mainly informal and subject to heavy bargaining and fluctuating prices. Many villagers are still in the process of transitioning from subsistence to cash economy, based on monetary transactions.

On the other hand, Belitung’s economy is for the most part formalized: transactions are recorded and facilitated by the use of digital technologies. One striking example of this is the way in which ride-hailing services work in the two destinations: while in Sumba one needs to approach motorists asking them for a ride and bargaining the price, in Belitung all of this is made more efficient by smartphone applications such as Go-Jek and Grab, which standardize the price for a set distance and formalize the all process, offering credit card transactions. Other instances include the way data are registered and collected from accommodation providers, the presence of thorough licensing systems and, more in general, the complete reliance on the cash economy.

With this, I want to suggest that the economic characteristics of Sumba make long distance control challenging. In short, if people are not dependent on money and are not entrapped in a system, they are more difficult to control. Once again, the opposite applies to Belitung: if Go-Jek decides to increase or lower the fares for a particular route, all the drivers have to comply to that decision. Additionally, in Sumba most of the goods are locally sourced whereas Belitung relies more on importation from other islands, in particular Java.

infrastructure, transportation and connectivity

To conclude the comparison, it is useful to consider how the previous considerations are reflected on infrastructure, transportation and telecommunication. In Sumba many of the roads are in poor conditions and make transport inefficient. Telephone and internet are limited in geographical coverage and quality and make communication often difficult. It is the case that some homestays do not even have access to telephone signal and internet reception. This is mirrored in the sporadic digital communication, the limited adoption of digital sharing economy services, inconsistent online marketing and weak links with tour operators. Needless to say, the situation in Belitung is diametrically opposed: efficiency and quality are visible in roads, transportation and telecommunication. These characteristics are surely a sign of development and prosperity but can also be seen facilitators of long distance control: for example, if businesses start to rely more and more on tour operators and online platforms they become increasingly dependent on them.

Back to long-distance control

But how does all of this relate with what proposed by Law (1986), in his article about long distance control? First of all, the role of documents can be compared with the formalization of social networks, the need to comply to regulations and the necessity of having licenses. Nodes belonging to the network are told what to do and therefore deprived of individual agency. Next, devices are identifiable with digital sharing economy services, such as Grab and Go-Jek that, on the one hand, make the process drastically more efficient and streamlined but, on the other hand, enable standardization and subsequent control. Also, if people are all reachable and connected to digital social networks and platforms, and if they all speak the same language, they are easier to instruct, to “drill”. This has enormous potential for tourism development, but it also goes hand in hand with decreased independence and self-sufficiency.


From the comparison in the previous section, it becomes clear that in Sumba and Belitung development and efficiency are directly proportional with the susceptibility to long distance control and inversely proportional to self-sufficiency. Well-structured networks, organized forms of governance and a more formalized economy reflect economic development and prosperity across the whole destination, for example in infrastructure and digital services. At the same time, these characteristics make a destination less self-sufficient and dependent on outsiders.

But what are the consequences of this? And what is more desirable? A self-sufficient but underdeveloped destination, or a prosper and developed one dependent on outsiders? Clearly there are not absolute answers to these questions, as different perspectives lead to different stances. A philosophical debate could be opened on this dilemma. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to investigate how state of development and level of self-sufficiency influence destinations’ vulnerability and resilience.

Due to space and time constraint, a through discussion about this is beyond the reach of this essay, but it is my personal opinion that destinations that are less self-sufficient are more vulnerable, if the entities they are dependent on are in situations of crisis. Also, disrupting events affecting the key nodes on which a destination – or a part of it – is dependent can have ripple effects on the destination itself, making it less resilient. Despite this, being more developed and more efficient could make a destination less vulnerable and more resilient. For example, better connectivity and infrastructure could facilitate social cohesion and joint action in moments of emergency and crisis.

Following these considerations, I want to make explicit that it is not my intention to convey that development facilitated by external actors is necessarily undesirable and deleterious for tourism destinations in all cases. Instead, I would like to elucidate the reader on the complexity of the subject and on the different ways in which development affects destinations.

Author: F. Cambi (2018)



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