Reducing carbon emissions is crucial to the sustainable development of tourism. However, there are no consistent conclusions about the nexus between tourism and carbon emissions. Considering the possible nonlinear and spatial effects of tourism on carbon emissions, this paper employed spatial econometric models combined with quadratic terms of explanatory variables to explore the nexus between them using Chinese provincial panel data from 2003 to 2016. The main results are as follows: (1) There is a significant inverse U-shaped relationship between tourism development and carbon emissions. In the provinces whose tourism receipts are relatively low, the effects of tourism on carbon emissions are positive but decrease gradually as the tourism receipts increase and then shifts to negative and continues decreasing gradually when the tourism receipts beyond the critical value. (2) For the geographical proximity and industrial relevance, one province’s tourism development not only affects its carbon emissions but also affects its neighbors’ carbon emissions through spatial lag effect (indirect effect) which is also inverse U-shaped. (3) Carbon reduction policies, sustainable education, and transportation infrastructure all have significant moderating effects on the relationship between tourism and carbon emissions, but the moderating effect of the management efficiency of tourism is not statistically significant. Furthermore, improvements to the sustainable education and transportation infrastructure not only strengthen the direct negative effect of tourism on carbon emissions but also strengthen the indirect negative effect of tourism on carbon emissions. This study not only advances the existing literature but is also of considerable interest to policymakers.
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