2.1. Literature Review
Digital economy refers to a series of economic activities based on digital technology with a digital platform as the main medium supported by digital empowerment infrastructure. Its content not only includes digital transactions but also infrastructure, digital media, and digital goods and services to ensure the normal development of digital transactions. It is an all-round and multi-dimensional economic system [7
]. In recent years, the topic of digital economy has attracted extensive attention from scholars all over the world. Mulaydinov [8
] has pointed out that a digital economy is a very complex system shaped by human beings; it is a comprehensive system of management, definition, organization and planning—all of which are aimed at ensuring sustainable economic growth and improving human life and living standards. Salamatov et al. [9
] discussed the innovation environment required for the development of a digital economy from the perspective of “management ecology”. This environment focuses on the security requirements of the environment and economy, and can provide solutions for the sustainable development of an innovation environment. The formulation of new education and social policies and the establishment of business support are also needed to create a talent reserve to ensure the continuous improvement of national competitiveness. Digitization is also changing patterns in various forms of social and economic relations, and the increase in digital penetration has created new challenges and threats for social and economic development [10
]. Bukht and Heeks [11
] concluded that developing countries need to formulate effective, sustainable, and consistent policies in all sectors to promote the growth of a digital economy and its contribution to social and economic development. Bilozubenko et al. [12
] compared the development level of digital economies in European Union (EU) countries. They created a digital economy vector containing 20 index features, compared the digital economy development parameters of EU countries on the basis of a cluster analysis, and finally, provided a solution for bridging the digital economy gap between countries.
Zuo et al. [13
] found that in the post-COVID-19 era, a digital economy has a natural technological advantage in that it can give full play to the advantages of a super-large market and potential domestic demand, which could also serve as a powerful booster for China to build a development pattern of domestic and international double circulation with domestic circulation as the main body. Yu and Feng [14
] conducted a regional analysis on the differences and influencing factors of the development of China’s digital economy. They found that overall regional disparities in digital economy development in China present an expanding trend, and that there is a strong positive correlation between regional and overall disparities in digital economy development. However, differences in the development of a digital economy within a region is opposite to differences for the whole region. In addition, the digital basis is the main reason for regional differences in the development of a digital economy. A regional analysis of digital economy development provides valuable insights for backward regions to catch up with advanced regions and how to close the digital divide between regions. Hu et al. [15
] used Python technology to obtain data on urban digital economy development, and verified the acceleration effect of the degree of economic digitization development on industrial structure upgrading. They also explored the synergistic development effect of economic policy tendencies and regional modernization level on the upgrading of industrial structure and the increasing marginal benefit trend of the influence between digital economy and industrial structure.
Against the background of global warming, the carbon reduction effect of the digital economy is also attracting attention. General Secretary Xi Jinping announced at the general debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2020 that “China strives to peak CO2 emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060”. At a subsequent summit, Xi went further, saying that “By 2030, China’s carbon intensity will be reduced by more than 65 percent from 2005 levels”. On 31 October 2021, the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was officially held in Glasgow, United Kingdom. People from all over the world gathered in Glasgow, United Kingdom, to participate in the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference. COP26 is of great significance. Whether the Paris Agreement can be fully and effectively implemented, whether developed countries can fulfill their commitments, and whether they can promote fair and inclusive climate action were the focus of this conference. At a time when it is imminent to deal with global climate change, the world’s largest and most important climate-related conference undoubtedly undertook an important mission of coordinating and guiding global climate policies in the coming decades, and carbon emission control would undoubtedly become the key to the conference. It can be seen that the issue of carbon emission reduction has become a hot topic in the world, and academics have also conducted research on carbon emissions from various aspects.
We also found relevant studies in the literature by domestic and foreign scholars. Balogun et al. [16
] found that digital technology has a positive impact on carbon emission reduction and sustainable development after conducting case studies on cities on various continents. Chen [17
] empirically tested the impact of digitization on carbon emissions by taking BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries as samples and found that digital technology would significantly reduce carbon emissions. Li et al. [18
] empirically tested the impact of energy structure and digital economy on carbon emissions based on the extended STIRPAT model. Their results showed that an energy structure dominated by coal has a significant driving effect on carbon emissions and the digital economy has a significant regulating effect. Saqib [19
] studied 13 emerging Asian economies and 63 emerging and developed economies and found that economic growth and non-renewable energy consumption exacerbated environmental degradation, while renewable energy consumption reduced the adverse impact on the environment over time. At the same time, in the long run, economic growth will play a positive and significant role in the use of renewable energy [20
] Katircioglu et al. [21
] examined the impact of tourism growth on the emission of pollutants in the northern part of Cyprus and showed that tourism has a significant long-term impact on carbon emission levels and that tourism growth would lead to environmental deterioration. Rej et al. [22
] argued that paradigms of sustainable tourism policy impact are designed to prioritize the decoupling link between tourism development and environmental degradation and confirmed that higher international tourist numbers, use of renewable energy, and total capital formation can curb emissions in the long run. Surprisingly, for developing economies such as Sub–Saharan Africa (SSA), machinery imports can also significantly reduce carbon emissions, but not as much as renewable energy [23
In China, Deng and Zhang [24
] found that a digital economy reduces the emission of various pollutants, and that the emission reduction effect on sulfur dioxide is the most obvious. Xie [25
] concluded that a digital economy could reduce carbon emission intensity through an improvement in the energy structure and the advancement of partial technology, especially in central and western China. Cha et al. [26
] pointed out that there is a significant positive correlation between tourism growth and carbon emissions through an empirical analysis. Bian et al. [27
] found through data research that the waste treatment sector has significant potential to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Emission strategies to reduce GHG should be formulated based on waste generation and disposal conditions, level of economic development, and each region and province’s operation and management level. Shang et al. [28
] conducted a survey, and based on a quantitative analysis of the results, suggested that ASEAN governments should promote renewable energy certificates (REC), because clean energy is an appropriate way to control environmental quality by reducing carbon emissions. Chien et al. [29
] investigated the impact of information and communications technology (ICT) development, economic growth, and financial development on CO2
emissions, and confirmed that the explanatory influence variable varies with different quantiles of CO2
emissions. It is evident from the above that the research directions and the results of studies are not uniform, and that the different conclusions may be caused by differences in sample time and national institutional background. Digital technology is changing rapidly and the carbon emission reduction effect in different time periods and regions are likely to differ. It is certain, though, that the carbon emission reduction effect of the digital economy has greatly hindered the process of global warming, and this was one of the key topics of the Glasgow Climate Conference COP26, which has a great impact on the sustainable development of the economy and the ecological environment. The goals of green ecology may be close at hand.
On whether the digital economy will promote trade in services, Gonzalez and Ferencz [30
] concluded that in the era of digital economies, transnational corporations are fully entering the stage of digital transformation. Besides the income from product sales and product services, transnational corporations are gaining a third kind of income from data service trade. Li [31
] adopted interdisciplinary research methods—comparative research, statistical research, and quantitative analysis—and found that the digital economy has driven the transformation and upgrading of China’s service trade industry.
What about international trade in tourism services? Kesgin et al. [32
] found that the enthusiasm of residents in tourist destinations promoted the development of the local tourism service trade. Razzaq et al. [33
] examined the relationship between tourism development, technological innovation, and carbon emissions by testing the assumptions of China’s environmental Kuznets curve (EKC). Based on the asymmetric emission reduction effects of tourism and technological innovation, they concluded the Chinese government should implement a policy of tourism–technology integration. Zhou and Zhou [34
] analyzed the international market share, service competitiveness index, and comparative advantage index of tourism service trade before the outbreak of COVID-19 and applied revised diamond and gravity models. They found that training tourism talents, improving infrastructure, and expanding investment can enhance the international competitiveness of China’s tourism service trade to a certain extent. Zhang and Lao [35
] used the competency-based education (CBE) model to create a modular design for a curriculum system for tourism service trade to match talent training objectives, teaching content, and practical abilities, and cultivate more comprehensive, innovative, and applied talents for the tourism service trade to improve the level of service in the tourism trade. Geng and Zhang [36
] studied the factors that influence the competitiveness of China’s tourism industry from two aspects: resource endowment and institutional constraints. They found that the factors that significantly promote tourism include the number of star hotels, tourism labor productivity, high-quality talents, trade openness, and foreign direct investment.
To summarize, although the literature review produced relatively rich research results, there are still areas to be expanded: First, previous studies focused on the impact of traditional factors on international tourism, such as transport infrastructure, residents’ consumption levels, trade systems, and cultural distance, which are mostly based on bilateral or multilateral research models. However, the world is now in a post-epidemic era. More attention should be placed on whether the internal changes of a country will have an impact on the international tourism industry. Second, as the second largest economy in the world, there are few empirical studies on the development of China’s digital economy and its international tourism trade. These studies are generally limited to a single level, such as the Internet, and cannot accurately describe the specific role of the digital economy in promoting tourism. Third, in the context of global warming and the official signing of the Glasgow Climate Convention, low-carbon tourism is gradually coming into the public’s view; however, what role carbon emission will play in the influence path of digital economy on tourism service trade is seldom covered by present studies.
2.2. Theoretical Mechanism Analysis
From a supply side perspective, a digital economy not only promotes the upgrading of the tourism infrastructure but also deepens the integration and penetration of ICT and the services industry. New trade formats and modes are constantly emerging that reduce information asymmetry and costs in the traditional tourism services industry [37
]. The digital economy has strong elements of permeability and integration [38
]. Digital technology’s integration with the tourism service industry facilitates the flow of data, which in turn leads to the convergence of technology flow, capital flow, and talent flow in the tourism industry, and promotes optimal resource allocation and improves total factor productivity. In addition, ICT has changed the way information is transmitted and improved the efficiency and quality of information transmission at tourist attractions. It thus plays a significant role in reducing market segmentation and promoting the development of trade in local tourism services. The wide application of digital technology not only drives structural transformation and upgrading of the tourism service trade, but also promotes breakthrough changes in the service industry and service trade, resulting in many new formats and new modes. This in turn produces fundamental changes in the processes, technology, experiences, and other aspects of the tourism service trade.
For example, data mobility has generated new types of tourism service trade, such as the live streaming of tourist attractions and cross-border e-commerce sales of tourism cultural products through the implementation of digital tourism products and transactions on digital platforms. This has allowed tourism services to break through the constraints of the COVID-19 outbreak, and the scope and convenience of trade have been greatly increased. At the same time, with the extensive use of information technology, travel operators can fully understand the domestic and foreign market information through Internet search engines and digital advertising, thus greatly reducing the costs associated with data collection. In terms of information output, the Internet, microprocessors, ICT, and other digital technologies provide a more efficient and cheaper way to market tourist attractions. Compared to establishing marketing channels and offline advertising, online advertising, and websites are not only cheaper for operating enterprises, but are also able to target advertising based on the types of tourists [39
]. Operators of tourist attractions can collect information on customers and use historical data to analyze customer behavior and trends, develop scientific and affordable travel itineraries, create more targeted tourism products and services, travel service monitoring and tracking to ensure the smooth development of tourism services, and obtain market prices in a short time. Digital platforms, such as Meituan and Dianping, promote the characteristics of tourist attractions, introduce tourism and cultural products, and obtain timely customer feedback. Digital software, such as Amap and Didi Taxi, helps tourists to save time and costs. Through statistical analyses, human–computer interaction, and other digital technologies, tourist data can be presented as graphic and visual images for convenient transmission and communication to improve the efficiency of one-stop tourism services. These new formats and models not only enrich the content of the tourism service trade, but also broaden the field and boundaries of the tourism service trade, and improve the range of tourism services in the international trade market.
From a demand-side perspective, a digital economy can on the one hand increase consumers’ demand for traditional tourism services, and on the other hand also create a new demand for digital tourism services. With the development of the digital economy and the application of digital technology in the tourism service industry, the ability of tourists to obtain information has improved significantly, and the supply of available tourism service products is also more diversified, thus increasing the demand for higher standards and quality of tourism service products. At the same time, the integration of the digital economy and the tourism industry, has expanded the way tourists share information through various tourism platforms and bulletin board systems (BBS) that publish tourist experiences. Traditional travel services can also use digital technology to improve their influence, expand their services to potential tourist groups, increase their range of services, and to gain a competitive advantage in the market.
The development of a digital economy also drives the transnational flow of data. Tourists’ demands for services are no longer just satisfied with a longitudinal historical comparison, but are more inclined toward a horizontal comparison in the international tourism market to meet their expectations for better services. These changes also increase the scale of the traditional tourism service trade. The gradual penetration of the digital economy into the tourism industry has even subverted the interaction between individuals and society. The increasing popularity of digital technology has brought about a deepening of the digitization of tourists’ consumption behavior, so that tourists have gradually formed digital consumption habits and behaviors. Therefore, when choosing tourism services, scenic spots with more convenient digital services are usually preferred. Stimulated by a large amount of data and information, some tourists are prone to impulsive tourism and tend to favor “scenario-triggered tourism”, thus transforming immediate tourism needs into actual tourism behaviors and stimulating the booming demand for experiential, interactive, and one-stop digital tourism services. In addition, the development of a digital economy shifts tourists’ concept to individuation and diversification, and tourism types and modes to differentiation and diversification, thus greatly increasing the demand for digital tourism services [40
To summarize, a digital economy—from both the supply side and demand side—can promote the development of tourism services, reduce the costs of the service trade, improve the efficiency of the service trade, and give remote scenic spots access to the national and even the global tourism market. Next, we consider whether the digital economy always has a direct effect on the tourism service trade. There can be many reasons why this might not happen, especially in the context of curbing global warming and controlling carbon emissions in various countries after the Glasgow Climate Conference in the UK in 2021, where the call for “low-carbon tourism” has increased. After a review of the literature, this paper tries to introduce per capita carbon emissions as a mediator variable. As mentioned earlier, the development of a digital economy can significantly reduce the intensity of regional carbon emissions. At the same time, we conclude that carbon emissions affect the tourism service trade mainly through scale, technology, and structure effects. First, carbon emissions have an inverted U-shaped impact on the tourism industry. Under low-carbon policies, an increase in carbon emissions in the initial stage will inhibit the development of tourism; however, with the continuous optimization of all links, low-carbon tourism will continue to be accepted by the public; thus, this scale effect first suppresses and then increases tourism. Second, carbon emission will promote the continuous upgrading of the tourism service industry, which will radiate outward through low-carbon technology, resulting in a technological effect and thus, promote the service trade. Last, when “low-carbon tourism” is dominant, in the early-stage capital, manpower and technology have a positive net effect, which gradually improves energy efficiency. In turn, this enhances the ecological sustainability of tourism, optimizes industrial structure upgrades and technology research, and increases development efficiency, thus forming the structure effect, which further enhances the standards of tourism trade in services. Based on the above mechanism analysis, we posit that carbon emissions may play an intermediary role in the influence of digital economy on international tourism service trade. The specific empirical analysis will be shown in the next section.