Industry Ecology and Regional Development

Ecological Theory and Practice in Tourism Research in the New Era

  • SUN Yehong , 1, 2, 3, * ,
  • YAO Cancan 1 ,
  • CHEN Yuexin 4 ,
  • SONG Yuxin 4 ,
  • WANG Ying 5
  • 1. Tourism College of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100101, China
  • 2. Culture and Tourism Research Base of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100101, China
  • 3. Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China
  • 4. College of Arts and Science of Beijing Union University, Beijing 100083, China
  • 5. Institute of Rural Development, Zhejiang Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Hangzhou 310021, China
* SUN Yehong, E-mail:

Received date: 2021-08-02

  Accepted date: 2021-10-20

  Online published: 2022-01-08

Supported by

The National Natural Science Foundation of China(41971264)

The Premium Funding Project for Academic Human Resources Development in Beijing Union University(Baijie04)


With the development of tourism, the number of tourists and the scope of tourism activities are increasing, and the impact of tourism on the ecological environment is gradually revealed. The ecological environment is the foundation of sustainable tourism development. Some tourist destinations lack systematic and scientific evaluation and the proper planning of tourism resources, which makes it difficult for local areas to cope with the influx of a large number of people. In these destinations, the internal system is perturbed by a series of disturbances, which leads to bad effects on the local ecological environment. In addition to endangering the development of tourism, the quality of life of local residents is also threatened. Consequently, the issues between tourism and environment have become a hot topic in the field of tourism research. Through the collection of domestic and foreign tourism literature related to ecological theories since 1990 to 2020, the status of the application of various ecological theories in the field of tourism is revealed, such as life cycle theory, landscape ecology theory, carrying capacity theory, biodiversity, ecological niche theory and ecological footprint theory. This analysis found that the application of these theories to tourism mainly focuses on empirical research, and there are few studies on the basic theories related to it. In the empirical research, innovation of the research methods is basically absent. Therefore, future research should pay more attention to the theoretical research of ecological theory in the field of tourism, and combine modern science and technology in the practical application to strengthen the innovation of research methods. In addition, the prospect of applying ecological theories in future tourism research is discussed.

Cite this article

SUN Yehong , YAO Cancan , CHEN Yuexin , SONG Yuxin , WANG Ying . Ecological Theory and Practice in Tourism Research in the New Era[J]. Journal of Resources and Ecology, 2022 , 13(1) : 142 -160 . DOI: 10.5814/j.issn.1674-764x.2022.01.016

1 Introduction

With the improvement in the quality of life, tourism has become one of the main forms of leisure. Tourism is the fastest growing industry, playing an important role in stimulating the economy, increasing social employment and promoting cultural exchanges (Geary, 2018). While tourism brings great economic benefits, it also brings many negative impacts to the environment and society of tourist destinations (Tang et al., 2018; Fletcher, 2019; Kalayci, 2019). In order to obtain short-term benefits, tourism developers often carry out excessive and even predatory development of tourism resources and extensive management of tourism sites in the process of tourism development. With the runaway development of tourism increasing in quantity and expanding in extension, tourism activities have resulted in the problems of garbage pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of the ecological environment on which tourism depends, leading to the disappearance of many landscapes and tourist destinations.
The concept of sustainable development was put forward by the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. The theory of sustainable development and the ways to achieve it have gradually become one of the research frontiers. In the 1970s, some scholars began to realize the negative impacts of tourism, “smokeless industry” is not “pollution-free industry”, and the idea of sustainable tourism began to appear (Hardy et al., 2002). The “International Conference on Sustainable Development” explicitly put forward the concept of “sustainable tourism” in 1990 (Xie, 1994). The Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC) formulated the “Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Destinations” (GSTC-D).Maximizing environmental benefits while minimizing negative impacts is one of the important indicators of sustainable tourism development.
The ecological environment is the basis of the sustainable development of tourism, and correctly handling the relationship between tourism development and the environment is the premise of sustainable tourism development. Ecology is a science that studies the relationships between organisms and the environment and their mechanisms of action. Ecological theory provides a new theoretical perspective for tourism research. Therefore, scholars can start to draw lessons from ecological theories in tourism research, in order to realize the coordinated development between tourism and the environment.
Based on the current research results, this paper teases out the related ecological theories in tourism research through the collection and assessment of domestic and foreign ecological theories and tourism research literature since 1978. It reviews the ecological theories in tourism research such as carrying capacity, resilience, biodiversity, ecological niche, ecological footprint and other ecological theories, in order to enlighten the further application and expansion of ecological theory in future tourism research.

2 Overview of key ecological theory

2.1 Main theories

According to the number of studies, ecological theories applied in tourism research are divided into main theories and all “other” theories. The main theories include carrying capacity theory, life cycle theory, landscape ecology theory, biodiversity, ecological footprint theory and ecological niche theory.

2.1.1 Carrying capacity theory

In this paper, “tourism & carrying capacity” were used as key words in searching CNKI, Web of Science, Elsevier ScienceDirect and Taylor & Francis-Routledge and other databases, and 3877 papers were obtained after eliminating book reviews, some review papers, very short papers, conference newsletters published in journals.
The annual publication of articles in English shows an increasing trend. Research topics mainly focus on environmental sciences-ecology, social sciences, business economics, sciences and technology, engineering, water resources, geography, geology, physical geography, and biodiversity, etc. The issuing publications of the individual articles mainly focus on Sustainability, Tourism Management, The IOP Conference Series Earth and Environmental Science, Ocean Coastal Management and Journal of Coastal Research. The annual trend of articles in Chinese is the same as those in English, and it can be roughly divided into three stages (Fig. 1). Before 2008, the number of articles continued to rise. However, from 2008 to 2014, it fluctuated in stages, and finally reached the peak number in 2014, after which it declined to a certain extent. The research topics mainly focus on ecotourism, tourism environmental carrying capacity, ecological footprint, environmental carrying capacity, ecological carrying capacity, sustainable development of tourism, tourism ecological footprint, ecological footprint models, carrying capacity evaluation and so on. Most were published in Tourism Overview, Journal of Anhui Agricultural Sciences, Ecological Economy, Tourism Tribune, Resource Development & Market, Economic Geography, China Population, Resources and Environment, and so on. The research teams are concentrated in Yanshan University, Lanzhou University of Technology, Ocean University of China, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, and Nanjing Normal University.
Fig. 1 Number of papers about tourism carrying capacity research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
In 1838, Belgian scholar Forest P E firstly proposed the concept of “Carrying Capacity” from the perspective of ecology in combination with Malthus’s population theory, that is, the limit value of the amount of food available to a biological population and its growth rate. Since then, the concepts of ecological carrying capacity, environmental carrying capacity and resource carrying capacity have been widely applied in ecological protection, urban planning, land use and other fields (Zhang et al., 2009). Initially, the application of tourism carrying capacity focused on the physical spatial tourist carrying capacity, including the carrying capacity of recreational places such as grasslands (Suziki, 1954), seaside areas (Tamura, 1948) and campgrounds (Shiota, 1954). In 1963, carrying capacity began to appear in the field of tourism research, and the concept of tourism environmental carrying capacity was put forward. On this basis, WTO/UNEP defined tourism environmental carrying capacity as “the maximum number of tourists that can be accepted by a tourist destination within a certain period of time without causing economic, social and resource losses or reducing the satisfaction of tourists”. The carrying capacity of the ecological environment and tourism facilities were discussed from the perspective of the number of tourists (Zhao, 1983; Wang and Ma, 2007). After that, social factors such as tourists’ perceptions and residents’ psychological satisfaction were included in the category of carrying capacity. Most scholars take nature reserves as empirical research objects, obtain research data by questionnaire interviews or field observations, and measure tourism psychological carrying capacity by quantifying crowding perception (Yang et al., 2007; Kalisch, 2012), while Hu et al. (2005) used a public opinion survey to study the social carrying capacity of tourism in Jinhua, China.
The index system of tourism carrying capacity has gradually developed from a single index focusing on the natural environment to a multi-index system covering ecology, economy, society and culture, and its calculation method has also changed. Liu (1998) proposed to apply the “short board theory” in the “barrel principle” to measure the value of the tourism environment carrying capacity by a questionnaire survey. Among the comprehensive index econometric models, the most representative methods are linear programming method (Lei and Pu, 2010), analytic hierarchy process (Morteza et al., 2016), ecological footprint method (Chu et al., 2014), computer simulation and system dynamics models (Yang et al., 2018), fuzzy comprehensive evaluation and grey prediction (Yang et al., 2013), input-output analysis (Kluger et al., 2016), and geographic information technology (Cisneros et al., 2016), which are used to evaluate the tourism carrying capacity.
After decades of development, the theory and practice of tourism carrying capacity have been enriched. The international research on carrying capacity theory began early, and the theoretical research on concept connotation, theoretical framework, index system construction and model application are more in-depth. The empirical research object is relatively simple, mainly focusing on small areas such as scenic areas. There are obvious differences between Chinese and English research on tourism carrying capacity, in which the Chinese studies are more diverse in empirical research. The international studies tend to not only measure the carrying capacity of specific scenic areas, but also measure the tourism bearing capacity of larger regions such as cities.

2.1.2 Life cycle theory

In this section, “tourism area life cycle” or “tourist area life cycle” or “life cycle &destination life cycle” were used as key words for searching CNKI, Web of Science, Science Direct-Elsevier, Taylor & Francis-Routledge and other databases, and 5359 papers were obtained after eliminating book reviews, some review papers, very short papers, conference newsletters published in journals.
Over the past 25 years, the number of articles in English on the life cycle of tourism has been growing slowly. Research topics mainly focus on hospitality, leisure sport tourism, environmental sciences, environmental studies, green sustainable science technology, and management etc. The literature in Chinese has shown large growth in the past 30 years, which can be roughly divided into three stages (Fig. 2). From 1990 to 2003, the number of published articles was very small, with 2-3 articles on average every year. From 2003 to 2011, it entered a period of rapid development, and then a steady stage. Research topics mainly focus on tourism area life cycle, life cycle, tourist land, tourist land life cycle theory, rural tourism, and tourism products. Most were published in Tourism Overview, Tourism Tribune, Tourism Forum, and Resource Development & Market. The research institutions are concentrated in Anhui Normal University, Sun Yat-sen University, and Shaanxi Normal University.
Fig. 2 Number of papers about tourism area life cycle/tourist area life cycle/life cycle/destination life cycle in tourism research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
The word “life cycle” comes from biological terminology, referring to the evolutionary process of biology from birth to death (Gao, 2014). The life cycle theory refers to the development of objective things through birth, growth, maturation, and recession. Whether it is a product, a company, a tourist destination or a family, they all comply with such regular stages. Life cycle theory also involves ecological, tourism, remediation, economic, environmental, and technological fields among others (Ji et al., 2014). In practice, life cycle theory includes product life-cycle theory, corporate life-cycle theory, family life-cycle theory, and tourism area life cycle theory.
In 1963, Christaller (1964) proposed the concept of tourism life cycle. He believed that there are three development stages of tourism, which are the discovery, growth and decline stages. Since then, tourism area life cycle studies began to grow slowly. In 1980, Butler introduced the concept of the life cycle of marketing to tourism research. He divided the tourism area life cycle into six stages, which are the exploration, participation, development, consolidation, stagnation, declination and rejuvenation phases, and this concept has become the most widely used in tourism area life cycle research (Xie, 1995). In the exploration phase, tourist destinations have been discovered by some tourists who had an adventurous spirit, there is almost no travel infrastructure, and the visitor is attracted by the characteristics of local natural or cultural features. In the participation phase, local residents and governments build travel infrastructure which can attract some tourists. In the stage of development, the number of tourists grows rapidly, and tourism companies are involved. In the consolidation stage, the development of tourism products and scenic spots tends to improve. Although the number of tourists received is increasing, the growth rate has slowed down. In the stagnation phase, the number of tourists received has reached the extreme, and it is difficult for growth to continue. The heat of the tourism has been lowered. In the declination phase, the number of tourist destinations declines and tourists turn to other tourist destinations. In the stage of rejuvenation, the tourism destination develops new tourism products to replace the original tourism products, which leads to an increase in tourism reception and slow recovery (Xie, 1995; Gao, 2014).
The tourism area life cycle theory proposed by Butler has attracted the attention of many scholars. After that, scholars have discussed the application and scientific nature of the theory, and corrected this model to adapt to research on more tourism destinations (Yu, 1997). On the other hand, many scholars have also actively applied the theory to conduct empirical research, and many studies have verified the theory of Butler (Choy, 1992; Grtz, 1992). Almeida and Correia (2010) found that the development stage of Madera conformed to the theory of Butler, but there was also a unique feature, the island’s life cycle challenged the traditional life cycle mode, indicating that the maturity phase may continue with unlimited duration. Using indicators such as tourism trends, the growth of a region’s service economy, and local residents’ perceptions of current tourism development, Johnson and Snepenger (1993) explored the tourism development life cycle stage in the Yellowstone Greater area.
China’s research on tourism area life cycle theory originated in the 1990s.Bao and Xie firstly introduced the tourist life cycle theory to China. Bao analyzed tourism development and the tourism life cycle of Karst caves in China, and found that there was no finding or exploration stage in these tourism destinations, but they had directly entered the development phase (Bao, 1995). Xie (1995) introduced the domestic period of tourism in China systematically. He also discussed the way to control and adjust the life cycle from the three aspects of demand, effect and environment.
Regarding the research methods, both quantitative and qualitative methods have been involved. When discussing the development of tourism industries or the tourism landscape pattern, there are more qualitative studies. When measuring the life cycle of tourism land, scholars generally use quantitative methods, including tourist growth rate and the trend line method. Both quantitative and qualitative methods are involved in the study of the division stage. Some scholars use the logistics model to divide the tourism life cycle stages, and others have joined the quantitative index and the qualitative judgment stage characteristics to divide the tourism lifecycle stages. AHP is a method commonly used by scholars to study the factors affecting the life cycle of tourist destinations.
At present, the related research of tourism area life cycle theory mainly focuses on enriching the content system and exploring the influencing factors. Many scholars, in combination with the actual tourist destination, divide its life cycle stages in order to study the characteristics of the life cycle. Many scholars also study the factors and mechanisms that influence the life cycle of tourist destinations in order to provide countermeasures for the good development of the tourism destinations.

2.1.3 Landscape ecology theory

In this section, “landscape ecology tour” or “landscape ecology tourism” were used as the key words in searching CNKI, Web of Science, Elsevier Science Direct, Taylor & Francis-Routledge and other databases, and 2956 papers were obtained after eliminating book reviews, some review papers, very short papers, conference newsletters published in journals.
Through the contrast in international and Chinese paper numbers (Fig. 3), it can be seen that there are more and more studies in the tourism field, especially after 2010. International researchers mainly focus on environmental science, environmental studies, ecology, green sustainable science technology, and geography etc. In China, the application of landscape ecology in tourism can be divided into three stages, including the initial stage from 1993 to 2002 (The theory has been introduced in the field of tourism since 1993), the rapid rise stage from 2002 to 2008, and a steady development stage after 2008. Research topics mainly focus on: Planning and design, ecological tourism, landscape ecology, landscape planning, landscape pattern, landscape planning, landscape design, rural landscape, rural tourism, and forest parks. The research institutions are mainly focused in Central South University of Forestry and Technology, Zhejiang A&F University (Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University), Beijing Forestry University, Northwest A&F University (Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University), Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology, Northeast Forestry University, Nanjing Agricultural University, Sichuan Agricultural University, Anhui Agriculture University, and Hunan Agricultural University.
Fig. 3 Number of papers on landscape ecology tourism/landscape ecology research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
The word landscape, which is from German, is mostly used to describe the beautiful natural scenery. In ecology, the concept of landscape can be divided into generalized and narrow forms. The narrow landscape refers to a certain range of heterogeneous geographic units, while the generalized landscape refers to having heterogeneity from micro to macroscopic scales. It emphasizes spatial heterogeneity and the multi-scale reaction of the ecosystem (Pickett, 1995). The concept of landscape ecology was first proposed by Troll, a German biogeographer, in 1939. He introduced the concept of landscape into ecology, which attracted the attention and research of many scholars. Finally, landscape ecology was gradually established. Troll believed that landscape ecology is “a science of discussing the relationship between various biological communities and the environment in which they are located” (Asakawa et al., 2004). Troll also believed that landscape ecology is a complex subject between geography and ecology. The research content of landscape ecology involves ecology, biology, geography, agronomics, forestry, and others (Wu, 2000).
The study of landscape ecology began in the 1930s, then achieved rapid development in the 1980s (Kieu, 2014). At present, landscape ecology is divided into two schools: The European School and the American School. The European School gives more consideration to the overall impact of society, humanities, politics, and economy. The American School pays more attention to ecological spatial pattern analysis and mathematical model analysis (Cai, 2012). The research of landscape ecology in China started in the early 1980s. In 1984, Huang and Li (1984) published a paper entitled “Landscape Ecology of Changbai Mountain Alpine” in Acta Geographica Sinica. In the 1990s, the development of domestic landscape ecology had entered the rapid development period. With the development of 3S technology, the landscape ecological theory is now widely used, and the research results have emerged.
After more than a half century of study, landscape ecology has developed into a series of practical theoretical systems, such as landscape structure and function theory, landscape model theory, ecological integrity and spatial heterogeneity theory, landscape diversity theory, landscape change theory, scale theory, etc. (Yang, 2004). The landscape structure is usually defined in landscape ecology to describe the matrix, patches and corridors. The landscape heterogeneity is one of the important factors governing tourists’ attraction, and is the core theory of landscape ecology. It determines the diversity of spatial patterns that are characterized by high spatial patterns. Landscape diversity refers to the diversity of landscape units in structure and function, and generally includes patch diversity, type diversity, and pattern diversity. Today, the application of landscape ecology is increasingly broad, and the most prominent application fields include landscape planning, natural resource management, tourism landscape design, and so on (Zhong et al., 2004).
In tourism research, scholars use the theory of landscape ecology to discuss tourism planning, tourism landscape design, landscape patterns, and landscape patches. Research objects mainly focus on rural tourism landscape, wetland landscape, and heritage tourism. The patch-corridor-matrix model of landscape ecology is also applicable to the landscape planning of tourism destinations.

2.1.4 Biodiversity

In databases such as CNKI and Web of Science, the searches were performed for the themes of “tourism” and “biodiversity”, and articles with relatively low quality, such as conference papers and book reviews, were excluded to finally yield 4654 articles.
A search for the topics of “biodiversity” and “tourism” in CNKI indicated that a total of 1499 articles have been published since 1990 (Fig. 4). Until 2012, the research on biodiversity in the field of tourism had been on a steady rise, and reached a peak in 2012, with 108 articles published. Since 2012, the number of published articles each year has decreased, and in 2020, the number of published articles was only 63. In terms of the distribution of research topics, the top ten topics were ecotourism, biodiversity, nature reserves, biodiversity protection, conservation strategies, value assessment, wetland ecotourism, ecotourism development, tourism development and forest parks, accounting for 58% of the total publications. At present, the research on biodiversity in China’s tourism field is mainly published in the Acta Ecologica Sinica, Biodiversity Science, Journal of Natural Resources, Resource Science and Journal of Beijing Forestry University, which is distributed in different disciplines such as tourism, environmental science and resource utilization, forestry, biology, resource science and agricultural economy. The main research institutes include Beijing Forestry University, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Central South University of Forestry and Technology, Northeast Forestry University and other institutions.
Fig. 4 Number of papers on tourism and biodiversity research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
A Web of Science article search on the topics of “tourism” and “biodiversity” retrieved a total of 3155 research articles since 1990. Based on the numbers of articles published, biodiversity research in the field of tourism can be roughly divided into three stages. From 1990 to 2013, tourism research on biological diversity increased steadily, however, the number of articles published dropped to 161 in 2014. Since 2015, the number of published articles has been increasing rapidly. In 2020, the total number of published articles was 375, reaching the highest peak in history. In terms of research topics, the top ten are: Environmental Sciences-Ecology, Biodiversity Conservation, Social Sciences, Business Economics, Zoology, Marine Freshwater Biology, Geography, Forestry, Science Technology and Agriculture. The articles were mainly published in Biodiversity and Conservation, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Sustainability, PloS One, and Biological Conservation. From the perspective of geographical areas, the research is concentrated in USA, Australia, China, England, South Africa and so on.
Biodiversity is the core part of the biosphere, and also an important survival support system for the sustainable development of human society (Li et al., 2019a). It has certain practical and potential value, and is the form of expression of the integration and unification of economic benefits, ecological benefits and social benefits. At present, there is no strict and unified definition of biodiversity. In the narrow sense, biodiversity refers to the process and result of various elements of the natural ecological environment forming a stable ecological complex within a certain range, which are integrated together through specific ecological laws to form the interactions between organisms and their environment. Biodiversity in the broad sense includes biodiversity in the narrow sense and related humanistic cultural factors. Species diversity is the core of biodiversity, which involves the abundance and uniformity of species within a certain range. Genetic diversity is an important part of biological diversity, which broadly refers to the sum of the genetic information held by all living things on earth. An ecosystem is a natural complex of continuous interactions between living things and the environment on which they depend.
Human activities are the primary cause of biodiversity change (Wei et al., 2014). Due to the increasingly serious impact of social development and human production activities on the global ecological environment, biodiversity is rapidly disappearing, and a series of ecological and environmental security problems are being triggered, which gradually threaten the healthy development of human society (Ma et al., 2004). In recent years, ecotourism has developed rapidly and relies on the unique natural ecological environment space and rich biodiversity of a region. As the main body of tourism activities, many tourists entering ecological tourism sites will inevitably lead to the change of biodiversity. The construction of the infrastructure for tourism activities will affect the ecology of the region. Therefore, the protection of biodiversity in tourist destinations has attracted the attention of scholars at home and abroad.
The research on biodiversity by foreign scholars is often related to research on the sustainable development of tourism, the development of ecotourism, and the realization of the coordinated development of biodiversity conservation and tourism. In the 2010 World Tourism Day—Tourism, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Summit Dialogue, officials of the World Tourism Organization and scholars from various countries had in-depth discussions on how to promote the sustainable development of tourism and biodiversity, and called for attention to the relationship between biodiversity and tourism. The conservation of biodiversity and the sustainable development of human beings are considered to be mutually beneficial and the utilization of tourism resources should be adjusted. As the basic resource of ecotourism, the effective protection of biodiversity will realize the sustainable development of tourism, otherwise it will lead to certain restrictions and constraints on ecotourism. Therefore, international scholars emphasize that the protection of biodiversity is the premise of the development of ecotourism measures. Research in China usually focuses on basic research and empirical research on biodiversity. Basic research focuses on biodiversity theory (Liu, 2009), biodiversity conservation (Zhang and Zhang, 2002), biodiversity conservation strategies and planning approaches (Ma et al., 2012), impacts of tourism development on biodiversity (Peng, 2012), and legal systems (Niu, 2015). The empirical research aims to establish the biodiversity index system in the scenic area, and systematically screen the regional biodiversity influencing factors, in order to identify the main factors and pay attention to them (Fang, 2021). In a study, the monitoring plan of nature reserves was compiled, the ecological environment of internal scenic areas was monitored and analyzed, the influencing mechanisms of tourism activities and tourists on biological species and communities were revealed, and the countermeasures for biodiversity protection were put forward (Zhang et al., 2019). Efforts were made to analyze the impacts of tourism-related activities on the biodiversity and structure of scenic areas (Ma, 2015). In addition, biodiversity will also appear in the index evaluation system as an index of tourism sustainable development(Zhang et al., 2020), an evaluation index of tourism carrying capacity (Ma, 2016a), and an evaluation index of tourism resilience, which will affect the evaluation of scenic spots (Sun and Song, 2021).

2.2 Other ecological theories

2.2.1 Ecological footprint theory

In databases such as CNKI and Web of Science, articles with the theme of “tourism ecological footprint” were retrieved, and articles with relatively low quality, such as conference papers and book reviews, were excluded. Ultimately, 470 articles were obtained.
The retrieval of CNKI articles with “tourism ecological footprint” as the theme identified a total of 306 articles since 1990(relevant studies have appeared since 2002) (Fig. 5). The annual publication trend of articles can be divided into three stages: from 2002 to 2010, the number of articles was in a continuous rising stage; from 2010 to 2014, the number of articles decreased; in 2014, it reached the peak total number of articles at 35 articles, and then it declined to a certain extent. The main topics of tourism ecological footprint research primarily focus on ecological footprint, tourism ecological footprint, ecological footprint model, sustainable development of tourism, ecological footprint analysis, sustainable development evaluation, ecological tourism, tourism, ecological security and sustainable development of tourism. The publications of journals are mostly concentrated in Acta Ecologica Sinica, China Population, Resources and Environment, Geographical Research, Journal of Natural Resources, and Resources Science. The tourism field ranks first in many research fields with 46% of the publication volume, and followed by environmental science and resource utilization, macroeconomic management and sustainable development, agricultural economy, forestry, etc. The research teams are focused in Hunan Business School, Nanjing University, the Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yunnan University, and Qingdao University.
Fig. 5 Number of papers on tourism ecological footprint research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
A search for “tourism ecological footprint” as the theme in the Web of Science articles since 1990retrieved a total of 164 research articles (Fig. 5). From the perspective of the number of published articles, research on the tourism ecological footprint can be roughly divided into three stages. From 2002 (relevant studies have appeared since 2002) to 2017, the research on tourism ecological footprint gradually increased, but the growth trend was slow, reaching 22 articles in 2017. In 2018, the number of published articles decreased significantly, with only 11 articles. Since 2019, the number of published papers has increased and reached a peak in 2020, with 40 published papers. In terms of research topics, the top ten were: Environmental Sciences, Green Sustainable Science Technology, Environmental Studies and Hospitality Leisure Sport Tourism, Engineering Environmental, Management, Ecology, Economics, Geography and Geography Physical. The periodicals which focused on this topic include: Sustainability, Environmental Science and Pollution Research, Tourism Management, Journal of Sustainable, Tourism Journal of Cleaner Production. From the aspect of the study area, the most frequent were articles focusing on China, America, Spain, Australia, Pakistan and other places.
Ecological footprint refers to the area of land with biological production that can provide resources and waste disposal for a specific population (Xu et al., 2006). Ecological footprint is an operable quantitative method, which should not only meet the needs based on the current economic development and living production level, but also meet the needs of human survival and development for the ecological environment in the future (Du et al., 2004). The ecological footprint can be used to compare the gap between the ecological services provided by nature and the demands of human beings for ecological services, in order to explore the dependence of human beings on the ecosystem and the capacity of the ecosystem, and also to judge the utilization status of the human ecosystem (Li et al., 2019b). Ecological footprint theory can guide humans in making scientific and reasonable plans for the future survival and development of units and economic construction, so as to ensure that human development will continue to flourish on the earth without exceeding the carrying capacity of the earth. At present, ecological footprint theory has become an important method that is used to measure and evaluate sustainable development in the world. With intuitive and comprehensive advantages, it has been widely used in the quantitative evaluation of ecological carrying capacity and sustainable development in various levels, scales and fields.
The concept of ecological footprint was proposed by Canadian ecological economist William Rees (Ress, 1992). Since then, it has been continuously improved and upgraded, and a preliminary research framework of the ecological footprint model has been constructed. In most foreign studies, the ecological footprints of various countries (Mathis, 2004) or regions (Senbel et al., 2003) are analyzed based on data. The research shows that the environment around the world is facing severe tests, and the ecological deficit in the fields involving human beings is gradually expanding. Thus, scholars from all over the world have invested great effort in the study of the national ecological footprint to explore the ecological footprint at the national scale. On this basis, the concept of “tourism ecological footprint” is derived (Hunter and Shaw, 2007), and the ecological footprint of a tourism destination is evaluated by constructing the ecological footprint calculation model of that tourism destination (Gössling et al., 2002). The tourism ecological footprint model can be divided into six tourism ecological footprint models: tourism accommodation, tourism catering, tourism transportation, tourism shopping, tourism touring and tourism entertainment.
The concept of ecological footprint and its model were firstly introduced into China by Xu Zhongmin and Yang Kaizhong (Yang et al., 2000; Xu et al., 2003), and other scholars as a quantitative method to measure and evaluate regional sustainable development ability. The theoretical framework, index system and calculation method of ecological footprint analysis were introduced systematically, and the current research trend and development trend of ecological footprint analysis were analyzed in detail (Wang et al., 2002). The application of the ecological footprint analysis method is explained through the ecological footprint of specific countries and regions (Yang et al., 2000), which lays a foundation for the study of ecological footprint theory in China. Therefore, domestic scholars have gradually explored and applied the ecological footprint theory in terms of methods and models (Zhang and Zhang, 2007). With the deepening of the model, it has gradually expanded from the theoretical research realm to the application field, and gradually turned from the international perspective to the domestic provincial and municipal local regions (Xu et al., 2003). Many results have been obtained from the analysis of China’s ecological footprint. On this basis, the ecological footprint was applied to tourism destinations in 2004, by referring to a certain area containing a certain number of tourists with travel activity of a biologically productive land area, in order to illustrate the relationship between the ecological carrying capacity and sustainable development. Research was conducted on the possibility of using a sustainable development evaluation index of the ecological footprint (Li and Cheng, 2000) to carry out research on the ecological footprint of tourist destinations. Based on the ecological footprint analysis method and model, the sustainable development of local tourism, tourism ecological carrying capacity (Jia et al., 2020) and the energy analysis of the tourism ecosystem were evaluated (Sui and Lu, 2019), so as to provide a scientific basis and reference for regional sustainable development.

2.2.2 Ecological niche theory

Searching for the theme of “tourism niche” in the databases such as CNKI and Web of Science, exclude some articles such as conference papers and book reviews, yielded 613 articles.
The article retrieval from CNKI under the theme of “tourism niche” retrieved 165 research articles since 1990 (relevant studies have appeared since 2003) (Fig. 6). From the perspective of the number of published articles, the research on tourism niche can be roughly divided into three stages. From 2003 to 2009, the research on tourism niche was in a rapidly rising stage, and from 2009 to 2017, the number of published articles decreased. In 2017, the research on tourism niche reached its peak with 19 published articles, and then showed a downward trend again to2020. In terms of research topics, the top ten topics are: ecological niche, ecological niche theory, tourism niche, regional tourism, spatial pattern, regional tourism competition and cooperation, tourism city, tourism competitiveness, urban tourism competitiveness and strategy research. The journals in which the articles are published are mainly: Economic Geography, Journal of Central South University of Forestry and Technology, Academic Forum, Management World and Journal of Ecology. The major category of tourism accounts for 67% of the total publishing journals, followed by macroeconomic management and sustainable development, resource science, environmental science and resource utilization, and agricultural economy. From the perspective of research teams, they are concentrated in Jishou University, Central South University of Forestry and Technology, Minnan Normal University and Yanshan University.
A total of 448 research articles since 1990 (relevant studies have appeared since 1996) were found in Web of Science on the topic of “tourism niche”. From the perspective of the number of published articles, the research on tourism niche can be roughly divided into two stages (Fig. 6). From 1996 to 2014, the research on tourism niche always showed a slow growth trend, and the number of published articles had certain fluctuations. Since 2015, the number of published papers has increased rapidly and reached the peak of 73 in 2020. In terms of research topics, the top ten were: Hospitality Leisure Sport Tourism, Environmental Studies, Management, Environmental Sciences, Green Sustainable, Science Technology, Geography, Sociology, Economics, Business and Geosciences. The main publishing journals included: Tourism Management, Sustainability, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, Current Issues in Tourism, Scandinavian Journal of Hospitality and Tourism. From the perspective of research areas, the studies were concentrated in America, Australia, England, Spain, China and other places.
Fig. 6 Number of papers about tourism ecological niche research published in Chinese and international journals from 1990 to 2020
The term “ecological niche” was firstly proposed and used by Johnson in 1910. He believed that ecological niche refers to the position occupied by various species in an area in the environment, but the concept of a system had not been formed yet. Grinell (1917) firstly defined an ecological niche as “the last distribution unit that happens to be occupied by a species or a subspecies”, and later called it a spatial niche. Elton (1957) described an ecological niche in terms of the relationship between food and predators, which was later defined as a functional niche. In 1957, Hutchinson proposed the multidimensional hyper-volume model of the ecological niche, which transformed the modern niche theory from qualitative to quantitative research (Hutchinson, 1957). These three scholars' definitions of ecological niche are considered to be the most representative. With the development of niche theory, niche width theory, niche trend theory, niche expansion and compression theory, and niche overlap and separation theory have been derived, and they are gradually being applied in other fields such as the social and natural sciences. For example, the theory of niche width and niche overlap has been used to measure the degree of brand competition (George and Charlotte, 1990), the relationship between enterprises has been explored by simulating the ecological factors of enterprises (Lichtenstein, 1992), the relationship between population density and niche width has been explored (Nicholson et al., 2006), and the concept of urban niche has formed (Leuschner et al., 2009). The research on niche theory in China appeared in 1980s, mainly focused on theoretical research and empirical research, later than in other countries. At this point, abundant research results have been obtained. In terms of theoretical research, Zhu Chunquan proposed the niche situation theory based on the multidimensional hyper-volume niche theory, and believed that the niche refers to the functional position or role of a certain biological unit formed in the process of interactions with the environment in a specific ecosystem (Zhu, 1997). Since then, niche theory has been gradually applied to more research fields and industries and Huang (2001) first introduced the idea of ecological niche into tourism science. Domestic scholars have given many definitions of ecological niche, and it is generally believed that it reflects the relative status and role of the tourism destination in resources, market, service, environment and other dimensions. In empirical studies, the niche theory is often used as a tourism industry competitiveness evaluation index system to analyze the regional tourism industry niche size (Cheng and Fang, 2015), to create a competitiveness evaluation system to evaluate the tourism competitiveness (Li et al., 2017), resource potential, urban tourism spatial systems (Ma and Tong, 2018), the development of regional tourism competition (Jiang and Yu, 2009) and a tourism development coordination degree model (Zhang et al., 2016).

3 Application in tourism research

3.1 Application in ecotourism

By combing the application of ecological theory in ecotourism (Fig. 7), an obvious phenomenon can be found. The applications of biodiversity, carrying capacity and life cycle theory in the field of tourism are obviously more common than those of other theories, and the number of international studies on the application of biodiversity theory is significantly higher than that of the Chinese studies. Researchers prefer to use the theory of biodiversity in ecotourism, which shows that the characteristics of ecotourism and the ecological environment are the basis of its development.
Fig. 7 Applications of ecological theory in ecotourism
Ecotourism is a new type of tourism that started in the 1980s to adapt to people’s desire to “return to nature” and to protect the ecological environment of tourist destinations. Meanwhile, ecotourism, as one of the mechanisms of sustainable tourism development, is one of the main directions of tourism development in the world in the 21st century. The concept of ecotourism carrying capacity has been put forward in recent years. Its definition comes from the tourism carrying capacity, which means that tourists’ activities should not disturb the local ecological environment and adhere to the premise of protecting the ecological environment of the tourist destination. It means the largest number of visitors which the tourist destination can bear. At the same time, it needs to satisfy the demands of all tourist activities (sightseeing, leisure, sightseeing, exploration, research, etc.), reduce the impact of the ecological environment and social psychology, and bring benefits to the residents of the tourist destination. Some scholars, focusing on tourism destinations such as mountains, caves and beaches, use the tourism ecological footprint to represent environmental impact factors and evaluate tourism ecological efficiency in combination with the calculation of the tourism economic value (Sun et al., 2002; Loboet al., 2013; Sousa et al., 2017), such as taking Jingyuetan National Forest Park as an example to carry out the assessment and analysis of ecotourism carrying capacity. Yang (2003) carried out a study on the evaluation system and regulation of the environmental carrying capacity of ecotourism areas. Cheng et al.(2010) used the tourism ecological footprint measurement model to carry out a quantitative analysis of the ecotourism carrying capacity of Changbai Mountain area, and then evaluated the sustainable development state of the ecotourism environment in this area.
At present, the application of tourist life cycle theory in ecotourism research is mainly concentrated on two aspects: using the theory to make judgments on the tourism development stage of an ecotourism destination, and proposing strategies to promote the sustainable development of local ecotourism. Guan et al. (2014) used the line trend prediction model and the index trend prediction model to predict the number of tourists, and found that the Guandishan Forest Park is in the late stage of development, which is the consolidating stage. Dong et al. (2008) analyzed the stage characteristics of Zhangjiajie’s ecological tourism development, and predicted the market development trend. That study found that the lifecycle had entered the consolidating stage. Lu et al. (2015) divided the stages of development of ecotourism in China.
Ecotourism destinations generally include national parks, nature reserves, scenic spots, forest parks, etc. The theory of landscape ecology is also one of the important theories of ecotourism planning and management. The current application of landscape ecological theory in ecotourism is mainly in four aspects: 1) Ecological tourism landscape planning; 2) Regional landscape system analysis; 3) Exploration of ecotourism development strategies; and 4) Tourism landscape design.
Firstly, in terms of the ecotourism landscape, scholars believe that the landscape ecology of geographic “space” and ecological “function” can be combined with strong application and practicality in tourism research. It is a powerful means of ecological tourism development and planning (Liu et al., 2001; Han, 2010; Yu et al., 2011). Landscape ecology provides theoretical frameworks, and a range of methods, techniques, and data for ecotourism planning. On the one hand, the landscape structure and the interaction principle of the landscape structure can be used in the ecological tourist area. On the other hand, in the tourism landscape plan, the structure and function of the landscape must be considered. Applying the theory of landscape ecology, it can help planning patch arrangement and corridor connection (Liu et al., 2001). Yu used tourist areas, tourism gallery and tourism funds to discuss the strategy of tourism in Changbai Mountain (Yu et al., 2011). Chen discussed the rural ecotourism landscape planning from the perspectives of agricultural ecological landscape and rainwater collection (Chen and Dong, 2013). In addition to tourism landscape planning, scholars have applied landscape ecology theory to tourism line planning (An et al., 2017). Secondly, the theory of landscape ecology can be used to resolve the landscape system of tourism land. Landscape ecology can be used to analyze geographical landscape systems in ecotourism, and provide reference for local ecological tourism landscape planning. The landscape spatial pattern consists of the most basic landscape elements such as matrix, plaque, and corridor. In a tourist destination, the scenic areas are the patches on the matrix of different geographic backgrounds, while the tourist route is a corridor linkage of the scenic spot and the attractions (Zhong et al., 2004). Finally, the landscape ecology principle provides strategies for the development of local ecotourism in empirical research. Chen used the landscape ecology principle to analyze the landscape spatial pattern and its changes, and provide ideas and strategies for local ecotourism development (Chen, 2018).
More studies in the current from the perspective of biological diversity, tourism destination are the research sites to carry out biodiversity conservation, which aims to put forward biodiversity protection counter measures, and analyze the relationship between biodiversity and sustainable development of tourism. Studies on biodiversity in the field of ecotourism are often based on nature reserves, national wetland parks and natural scenic areas to explore the sustainable development of ecotourism in the region (Dong and Su, 2021), the conservation of biodiversity (Wang et al., 2018), and the relationship between biodiversity and poverty reduction in tourism destination communities (Guo et al., 2019). Most scholars believe that the effective protection of biodiversity, as a basic resource for ecotourism, will promote the sustainable development of regional tourism. At the same time, strengthening biodiversity conservation, as a key to agricultural and tourism development, will help to improve the livelihoods of poor people in tourist destinations. It is an effective means to promote regional poverty reduction. In addition, in tourism-related studies, biodiversity is often one of the important indicators of many measurement systems, such as sustainable livelihood, sustainable development of tourism, environmental capacity, resilience and environmental monitoring of tourism sites.

3.2 Application in rural tourism

Clearly, the numbers applications of carrying capacity and life cycle theory in the field of tourism are greater than those of other theories (Fig. 8). The core of rural tourism is the unique geographical environment, unique local scenery, local folk customs, and appreciation of the scene. Compared with ecotourism, the development of rural tourism is not completely dependent on the ecological environment. Therefore, there are relatively few studies on the environment in the application of ecology in rural tourism, such as ecological footprint, biodiversity and ecological niche theory.
Fig. 8 Application of ecological theory in rural tourism
With the rapid development of rural tourism, the pressure on the tourism environment increases gradually. Ecological theory can be applied in rural tourism research in order to realize the sustainable development of tourism. Zhang (2020) used analytic hierarchy process (AHP) to build the tourism resource carrying capacity model and calculated the rural tourism resource carrying capacity of Henan Province. Based on the ecological footprint theory, Xu and Zheng (2017) analyzed the tourism ecological carrying capacity and tourism ecological compensation standard of Cijiaolin in Lhasa by using the tourism ecological footprint research method.
The application of tourism life cycle theory in rural tourism mainly focuses on: 1) Exploring rural tourism adaptability management paths; and 2)Conducting empirical research, exploring different characteristics of different tourism life stages, and then distinguishing the life cycle stages of tourism development. First, the tourism area life cycle theory can be applied to explore the stage of rural tourism development, and analyze the problems, in combination with adaptive management theory. It can explore rural tourism adaptive management paths, build rural tourism adaptation management strategies, and promote the sustainable development of rural tourism destinations (Gao, 2014; Jia, 2016; Zhang, 2016; Zhao and Zhong, 2016)
Many domestic scholars have studied rural tourism practice with the life cycle theory. In the stage characteristics, the Butler tourism life cycle theory reveals that there are different characteristics in the different life cycle stages, and some scholars have discussed the characteristics of the various stages in different tourism destinations. Wang et al. (2011) discussed the changes in tourism support of local residents in different tourism life cycle stages. During the discrimination of the life cycle, scholars use quantitative methods to distinguish the life cycle stages. Shen (2018) believed that three main factors affect the life cycle: The number of tourists, the characteristics of tourism and tourist satisfaction. Chen and Huang (2016) believed that the main interest in rural tourism can be used to divide the tourism development stages. Finally, many scholars have applied the tourism life cycle theory in tourism products. Han (2013) believed that this theory could be used to analyze the developmental stages and characteristics of different tourism products. It can thereby provide a good theoretical basis for the developmental management of tourism products. Chen (2008) used the second curve theory of tourism life to explore the path of rural tourism product livelihood.
In addition to the tourism area life cycle theory, both the industrial cycle life theory and the family life cycle theory also apply in rural tourism development. Kang (2019) used the product life cycle to propose a way for optimizing Guizhou rural tourism. Qi et al. (2020) used the family life cycle theory to explore the preferences of people in different family stages, and found different preferences in different life stages.
The application of landscape ecological theory in rural tourism is mainly concentrated in rural tourism planning. Many scholars agree to respect the natural processes and ecological patterns in tourism planning. This kind of landscape-based thinking can promote the harmony of natural systems and human ecosystems in rural tourism. Ma (2016b) combined the concept of sustainable development in the principles of landscape ecology, and designed the village’s original ecological rural landscape. Li and Lin (2012) applied the theory and method to planning rural tourism, and he planned a pattern of rural tourist destination ecological elements from patches, corridors and matrices. Fan and Li (2009) used the patch-corridor-matrix model to divided rural tourist space elements.

3.3 Application in heritage tourism

The most widely used theory in heritage tourism research is life cycle theory, followed by carrying capacity (Fig. 9). As a special tourist destination, the world heritage site has its own life cycle. At the same time, the impacts of tourism on the environment and ecology of heritage sites have attracted extensive attention from scholars. It is of great significance to study the carrying capacity of heritage sites. On the one hand, it can serve as a powerful tool for the protection, planning and management of heritage sites; on the other hand, it can ensure the quality of the tourist experience in heritage sites, and is a necessary condition for the sustainable development of heritage tourism.
Fig. 9 Application of ecological theory in heritage tourism
The tourism resources on which heritage tourism depends are fragile and highly sensitive. Once destroyed, they are difficult to recover. Therefore, attention should be paid to the protection of heritage in tourism planning, development and management. Kang et al. (2006) adopted the methods of literature research, field research and structural questionnaire survey to analyze the tourism potential of 19 heritage sites in Xi’an City by using the market demand-carrying capacity matrix model, which can provide a reference for local heritage tourism planning and management. Pan (2014) evaluated the sustainable development of heritage tourism in Wulong Karst World Natural Heritage site by constructing the tourism ecological footprint model.
In heritage tourism, scholars have produced more research using tourism life cycle theory, and the research involves stage division, stage characteristics, and influencing factors. In terms of stage division, scholars usually explore the characteristics of the current tourism development situation of the heritage, and thus compared them with the characteristics of the life cycle stage. Finally, they analyzed the tourism development phase of the current heritage, and the historical evolutionary process (Yu and Wang, 2012; Wang, 2014; Ba and Yi, 2015). At the same time, scholars often divide the stages of heritage tourism. Yang et al. (2019) used four parameter logistic models to discuss the heritage tourism destination stages. The use of quantitative means to divide the tourist life cycle stages proved that the life cycle theory of tourism land is more than just a descriptive tool, since it can also accurately divide the evolutionary changes in different stages. Ba and Yi (2015) analyzed the life cycle characteristics of Dunhuang, and used the grey prediction model to build a tourist number growth model to predict the number of tourists.
In stage characteristic aspects, scholars discuss heritage, tourists, and residents (Wang and Zhou, 2014; Yang et al., 2019). Chen found that among residents at different stages of the life cycle, there are differences in the perception of the tourism impact. In the early period of the development of heritage tourism, residents perception of the tourism impact is more sensitive to the positive aspects, and with the stage of mature development, residents are more sensitive to the negative impacts in their tourism perception (Chen, 2012).
In the study of factors, most scholars believe that heritage tourism is a complex system, involving all aspects of economic, political, cultural, transportation and other factors. Scholars tend to explore the influencing factors of life cycle stages from three aspects: internal factors, external factors and a combination of factors. Yang et al. (2004) discussed the power factor affecting the heritage tourism destination life cycle, and proposed that the essence of the evolution of the tourism life cycle is to adjust the structure of tourism products, and is subject to many external factors. Yu and Wang (2012) divided the factors into growth promoting factors and growth inhibiting factors.
Many scholars apply the principles of landscape ecology to the research of the heritage land in order to explore the landscape planning, heritage protection, and adjustment and optimization of the landscape system. Based on the application of the landscape ecology, Yang and Xia (2012) explored the development and protection of the tourist landscape of the corridor, and his strategy of tourism landscape planning is proposed on the basis of analyzing the aesthetics of the corridor. He pointed out that the tourism landscape planning of the heritage should formulate scientific landscape planning, and create the historical and cultural characteristics of the heritage corridor on the basis of protection. Qu and Liu (2017) considered the landscape structure hierarchy, the characteristics of the patch and corridor, and the landscape spatial quantization, and discussed the applicability of the landscape ecological theory to the heritage protection. They believed that this interdisciplinary approach provides new ideas for heritage protection.

3.4 Application in other tourism research

In the planning, development and management of tourism destinations, guided by the tourism carrying capacity research conclusions, the influencing factors affecting the bearing capacity of tourism destination can be found. On this basis, the tourist management and scenic area management (Lee, 2006; Zhang, 2007) are revised to achieve the purpose of improving the comprehensive carrying capacity of the tourist destinations. Zhao (1983) evaluated the tourism carrying capacity of classical gardens in Suzhou for the first time and put forward several countermeasures. Bao (1987) and Jiang (1996) respectively analyzed the main environmental problems and the distribution of tourist flow in the Summer Palace and Huangshan Scenic area, and put forward measures to adjust the tourist carrying capacity. Cui et al. (1997) adopted the static model research method to systematically calculate the tourism carrying capacity of the main scenic area of Mount Tai, and revealed its space-time differentiation law and put forward tourism regulation strategies.
The life cycle theory is widely used, involving economic, social, environmental, and technological aspects. The life cycle theory reveals the process of developmental evolution fora wide range of real worlds. In tourism research, tourism life cycle theory is applied in ecotourism, low-carbon tourism, rural tourism and heritage tourism, and some scholars have used it in the domain tourism stage (Liu, 2020), urban tourism flow measures (Kong, 2019), and cultural changes (Deng, 2017). Liu (2011) determined the stage of the development of Qingdao through a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Kong (2019) measured the characteristics of Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei urban agglomeration using the trend line method.
Unlike the life cycle of tourism products, the life cycle theory of tourism enterprises has been the subject of less research in tourism, although they are both important components of life cycle theory in tourism research. In the life cycle of tourism products, scholars have explored the product structure optimization (Yu, 2010), tourism and the tourism product composite model (Zhang, 2015). The life cycle of tourism enterprises is based on management theory, and discusses business performance (Xu et al., 2019), corporate development (Sun and Hou, 2016) and so on.
Chen used the method of landscape ecology to study the tourism culture, and believes that the elements, structures, and functions of the destination tourism and the demonstration of the tourism landscape ecosystem are basically consistent. So, the use of landscape ecology methods to analyze tourism cultural display systems has certain feasibility (Chen, 2016). In addition, landscape ecology is also slightly involved in tourism management issues (Wen, 2017), landscape configuration mode (Wang, 2014), and tourist area landscape ecological pattern measurement and features (Cui et al., 2018).

4 Discussion

It is very necessary to strengthen basic theoretical research. The application of ecological theory in tourism is mostly in empirical research, and the research on basic theory is less extensive, especially for tourism carrying capacity. Carrying capacity has been applied early in the field of tourism, and has produced quite a wealth of research. Scholarly research on tourism carrying capacity mainly focuses on the construction of evaluation index systems, evaluation methods and the application of tourism carrying capacity. However, the basic theoretical research on the concept and connotation of tourism carrying capacity and the mechanisms for the evaluation of influencing factors have not yet formed a unified system, which lacks certain guidance for the practical application of tourism carrying capacity, resulting in the lack of scientific evaluation results, and the weak connection between basic research and application. Similar to the application of carrying capacity in tourism, the application of niche and landscape ecology theory in tourism is also focused on practice. Unlike its situation, the application of ecological niche and landscape ecology in tourism is more in the form of “just taking”, i.e., the understanding of the theory is still on the surface and there is no in-depth study of the coupling of the theory in tourism, so it has little guiding significance for social practice. The ecological environment is an important basis for the sustainable development of tourism. The original purpose of the application of ecological theory in tourism is to coordinate the relationship between man and environment so as to promote the sustainable development of tourism. Tourism is a complex and comprehensive industry, including the ecological environment, cultural landscape, social economy, etc. Therefore, the application of ecological theory in the field of tourism in the new era should be combined with the perspective of multi-disciplines, in order to comprehensively and deeply explore the mechanisms of action between tourism and environment, and strengthen its basic theoretical research.
At present, the research on tourism carrying capacity has been very rich, especially as the research on the evaluation of tourism carrying capacity has involved various tourism themes and various types of tourism destinations, so it is necessary to innovate the evaluation methods and evaluation indexes. In the study of the evaluation of tourism carrying capacity, scholars usually set the criterion layer for the aspects of natural environment, economy, society and tourism resources, and take water, land and space as the main individual elements to determine the threshold value from the perspective of resource supply and demand. Due to the interrelations between subsystems, the boundaries between them are not very clear, and the existing evaluation methods and evaluation indicators cannot solve this problem very well, so there are still some limitations in the evaluation of tourism carrying capacity. Therefore, in the future, scholars should pay more attention to research on the related indicators of fuzzy boundaries to ensure the scientific validity of evaluation results. The empirical study of the current tourist capacity is more focused on a specific period, and determining the number of tourists that a tourism destination can bear is a kind of static study. However, tourism develops dynamically, so the study of dynamic measurements of tourism carrying capacity would be more conducive to guiding practice. In the existing studies, system dynamics and computer simulation methods are introduced to dynamically measure the carrying capacity of tourism areas, but such research is still in the initial stage, the number of published papers is small, and the theoretical research is insufficient. Therefore, the dynamic study of tourism carrying capacity should be strengthened in future research and its evaluation framework should be innovated. At the same time, the carrying capacity of tourism destinations can be continuously studied based on different life cycle stages.
The present research greatly enriches the theory of tourism life cycle. In the development of theory, scholars have continuously questioned the adaptability of the tourism life cycle, but the theory is still undergoing constant improvement and evolution. Meanwhile, it is still not easy to extend its application. Therefore, future studies should be based on tourism destinations in different life cycle stages, deepen the research on residents’ perceptions, tourism carrying capacity and resilience of tourism destinations in different life cycle stages, and enrich the application of life cycle theory in tourism.
The application of landscape ecology emphasizes the interactions of humans and landscapes. Taking landscape ecology theory as the guiding ideology of tourism landscape planning, and emphasizing that ecological pattern planning should be paid attention to in tourism planning, can allow tourism landscape design to achieve harmony between man and ecology. The concept of landscape ecology gives a new perspective to tourism planning. In recent years, research on the tourism landscape is on the rise, which indicates that the academic circle has further deepened the understanding of tourism research. Using the theory and methods of landscape ecology for reference, it is of great significance to study the pattern and scale of the tourism landscape in tourism research. Most of the existing relevant studies focus on the topics of landscape planning and design, landscape pattern distribution and other qualitative descriptions, while the deeper pattern formation mechanism has not been discussed. In addition, we should strengthen quantitative research in the future.
The tourism ecological footprint is the application of ecological footprint theory in tourism research, and is a scientific method to quantitatively measure the impact of tourism activities on the ecological environment in ecological economics, which is of great significance for guiding the sustainable development of tourism. Theoretical research mainly discusses the concepts of footprint, ecological footprint and tourism ecological footprint. Empirical research on the tourism ecological footprint model, ecological carrying capacity of tourism, and tourism sustainable development as the research subject, are more focused on primary subjects such as geography, business management, the theory of economics, and have certain diversity and comprehensiveness. However, the current domestic research still has some shortcomings. Although the research method is relatively good, it lacks certain disciplinary innovation. It is very important to make use of the research characteristics of each discipline to realize the innovation of the research method and explore the similarities and differences of ecological footprints of different types of tourism destinations.
Tourism niche research emphasizes the spatial position, role and function of the tourism ecological unit in the ecosystem. Firstly, current research in this area is most extensive in terms of tourism niche assessment, tourism competition and cooperation development and tourism spatial structure analysis. Although the ecological niche has been studied in tourism for decades, there are still some shortcomings. Some scholars integrate multi-disciplinary theories for analysis, but most of them just remain focused on the understanding of the theoretical basis, and the theoretical integration is not close enough. Secondly, at present, most of the tourism niche studies in China remain at the level of quantitative model measurement, and lack any improvement or innovation of the model. In addition, the scope of research objects is mostly concentrated at the regional scale or tourism city clusters, and there are few tourism studies in counties, towns or other small-scale areas. In future research, the integration of disciplines and theories needs to be focused, providing innovative development ideas, paying attention to the research on towns and villages, and opening up a new direction of tourism niche research. At the same time, in the future, quantitative methods such as remote sensing technology and quantitative data should be used to evaluate regional biodiversity.
Nowadays, agricultural heritage sites around the world have carried out tourism activities as a dynamic conservation approach for the development of the heritage sites, and agricultural heritage tourism is being vigorously developed. Ecotourism, rural tourism and heritage tourism are the main forms of agricultural heritage tourism development; and, in fact, agricultural heritage tourism has its own unique place. As one of the pathways of dynamic conservation and adaptive management, tourism development needs to consider more ecological theoretical support. For example, the tourism ecological footprint theory and method can be applied to convert all human activities and consumption into land occupied area (i.e., virtual land). This ideal calculation method can better blur the boundaries between subsystems.

5 Conclusions

This paper reviewed the application of ecological theory in the field of tourism, and found that carrying capacity, life cycle theory, landscape ecology, biodiversity, ecological footprint and niche theory are the key ecological theories applied in the field of tourism research. The applications of ecological theory in ecotourism, rural tourism, heritage tourism and other tourism fields are also discussed. The application of the theory of discovery ecology in tourism mainly focuses on empirical research, and there are few studies on the basic theories related to it. In the empirical research, the research methods and systems lack innovation. Therefore, future research should pay attention to the theoretical research of ecological theory in the field of tourism, and combine modern science and technology in the practical application in order to strengthen the innovation of research methods.

Support for this work by the Graduate Research Innovation Project of Beijing Union University is gratefully acknowledged.

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