Contemporary Research Methods in Hospitality and Tourism

Table of contents, introduction.

This first chapter provides an overview of all the chapters included in this book. This book focuses on contemporary research methods in hospitality and tourism. Revisiting the traditional research methods is necessary for academia and practitioners in the hospitality and tourism field. New understandings and interpretations of traditional research paradigms such as positivism and interpretivism as well as more recent paradigms such as realism and pragmatism in the context of hospitality and tourism are vital to strengthen the research practices. We hope that the edited book can help researchers and practitioners in our field in their research journeys and applications.

Contemporary Research Paradigms and Philosophies

Understanding the most appropriate research philosophy to underpin any piece of scholarly inquiry is crucial if one hopes to address research problems in a manner distinct from those already evidenced across extant literature. Distinct philosophical ideas and positions are often associated with specific research designs, therefore influencing the research approach adopted in any given study. Identifying an appropriate philosophical approach requires robust comprehension of how philosophical positions differ, alongside a reflective understanding of one's own perceptions and beliefs regarding what knowledge and reality “are” and how new knowledge is discovered, developed, and/or confirmed. This chapter therefore discusses different research paradigms and philosophies in order to identify core distinctions therein, highlighting the advantages and the challenges associated with different philosophical approaches to research along the way.

Procedural Ethics vs Being Ethical: A Critical Appraisal

Tourism researchers, like those in other fields, are subject to multiple ethical dilemmas. Consequently, scholars in the field have called for researcher reflectivity, and specifically ethical reflexivity. Based on this it is recognized that when conducting research merely meeting procedural ethics requirements may not be sufficient. Rather, there is a need to move beyond procedural ethics to capture ethics in practice and to critically recognize what it takes to be ethical when undertaking research. This reflective chapter contributes to the discussion on research ethics in tourism by sharing critical reflections on the ethical journeys of the chapter authors, all of who, in differing ways, study sensitive topics. As such, the chapter draws on work looking at sensitive content on social media, disabled children, sex, and bestiality. The chapter highlights the ongoing and responsive approach to being ethical adopted by these researchers. The chapter reveals how ethical issues and challenges unique to the individual researcher were navigated in practice. Overall, the chapter challenges researchers to be ethical in their research rather than simply conform to research ethics procedural requirements. It calls on researchers to engage in critical and adaptive thinking while balancing radical and traditional approaches to ethics.

Get on Task: A Pragmatic Tutorial on Planning and Conducting a Systematic Literature Review

This chapter provides a roadmap for a systematic literature review built around the guiding questions of basic research design. First, we highlight the relevance and development of systematic literature reviews in tourism research. Second, we put the systematic review into perspective by outlining its characteristics and by clarifying the methodological assumptions. Third, we bring together recommendations based on previous research and review guidelines and present a step-by-step tutorial for a systematic literature review. From this chapter, readers will understand the foundations of systematic literature reviews, will be able to apply the methodology to their review projects and are introduced to further readings and best practice examples.

Bibliometric Studies in the Hospitality and Tourism Field: A Guide for Researchers

Bibliometrics is an instrument that allows the analysis of evolution, current state, and future trends in a scientific field. Many disciplines, such as hospitality and tourism, have undertaken bibliometric studies. Based on a review of the leading bibliometric methods used in the main bibliometric documents published in the hospitality and tourism field between 2010 and 2019, this chapter aims to propose a bibliometric guide to help researchers undertake studies based on bibliometric techniques, both evaluative and relational. Any bibliometric research comprises five phases: setting the research questions, selecting the appropriate database, establishing the criteria to follow, filtering the data, applying the proper methods, and analyzing the results. This chapter elaborates on these stages, highlighting the most important evaluative and relational techniques to study the structure of a scientific field from a bibliometric approach. Bibliometric studies provide valuable knowledge for academia, governments, and research centers. It also helps journals' editors evaluate publications and make editorial decisions.

Embedded Questions in Online Survey Email Invitations: The Impact on Response Rate and Quality

Extended research efforts have been dedicated to understanding how different aspects of online surveys impact the response rate and quality of collected data. With the hope to yield higher response rates, leading survey software solutions (e.g., SurveyMonkey, Qualtrics, QuestionPro) introduced a new technique of embedding a question from an online survey into invitation emails sent to the respondents. The purpose of this chapter is to examine the impact of embedded questions on survey response rate and quality. The results of two experimental studies show that respondents are more likely to respond to a survey with an embedded question compared to an email without one. No statistically significant differences were discovered regarding data quality that was assessed via survey completion rate, respondent bias, and attention check questions. The chapter provides suggestions and guidelines for increasing online surveys' response rate and quality.

Designing Good Survey Studies

The aim of any research is to create knowledge and to generate new insights. For insights from empirical research to be valid, the data from which insights are derived must be valid. Empirical data in tourism and hospitality research is predominantly collected by means of surveys. The chapter discusses a range of dangers to data validity associated with survey research; explains under which circumstances surveys represent a suitable or unsuitable method of data collection; and offers practical recommendations that can easily be adopted by survey researchers to ensure maximum validity of their data.

Publishing Experimental Research in Hospitality and Tourism: Some Key Insights

Experimental design has long been used by psychology and consumer behavior researchers to examine causal effects of interventions on human responses. However, it remains underutilized in hospitality and tourism research. Furthermore, problems in design, implementation, and report of results were identified in previous hospitality and tourism publications. It is imperative to equip hospitality and tourism experimenters with sophisticated and state-of-the-art knowledge about experimental design, and to draw their attention to some crucial, but easily neglected, issues in designing the experiment and writing the experimental research paper. Given these reasons, this book chapter discusses some key issues in experimental design and provides corresponding insights related to the sections of introduction, literature review, hypothesis, method, analysis, and results in an experimental research paper, while the uniqueness of hospitality and tourism is considered. It is expected that the chapter will be useful for hospitality and tourism researchers to plan, conduct, and report their experimental studies in the future.

Conducting a Systematic Qualitative Content Analysis in Hospitality and Tourism Research

Considering the significant increase of studies in the hospitality and tourism field that use content analysis as a research method, this chapter aims to describe the research process when the methodology of qualitative content analysis is utilized. Particular attention is placed on the operational procedures of this method—from the initial planning and preparation to presentation of findings and evaluation of the process, as this is often omitted by hospitality and tourism researchers. Four distinct stages are described in this chapter: preparation, data collection and analysis, reporting findings, and evaluation of the process. The discussion in this chapter helps to clarify how qualitative content analysis should be undertaken in a systematic manner, which would be of particular benefit to hospitality and tourism researchers. Advantages and disadvantages of the qualitative content analysis and its contribution to hospitality and tourism studies are also discussed.

The Use of Qualitative Content Analysis in Hospitality and Tourism

This chapter discusses the use of qualitative content analysis in the field of hospitality and tourism. The primary objective of this chapter is to draw attention to the use of a content analysis approach for the treatment of data. As a further objective, the chapter contributes to current knowledge by underscoring a qualitative content analysis approach that would be of benefit to hospitality and tourism scholars. Overall, the chapter serves to inform hospitality and tourism scholars of how to increase the trustworthiness of qualitative content analysis approaches, which is seen as one of the most crucial impediments to its use.

Reflections of a Qualitative Researcher: Structuring a Qualitative Research Methodology–An Illustration from a PhD Thesis

Selecting the methodological approach is a critical decision as it largely determines the effectiveness of the research. Encapsulating the research approach as a chapter in a thesis is often a challenge to many young researchers, despite the abundance of guides on PhD thesis writing and on the various approaches to research methodologies. However, most guides are descriptive and fail to provide appropriate illustrations of a methodology chapter especially in qualitative research. In a qualitative methodology chapter, key factors are the assumptions, theoretical lens, and worldviews on the topic, making qualitative methodology chapter less definite, more subjective and lacks a conventional model. This chapter addresses the need for qualitative research samples and aims to advance the understanding of writing a qualitative research methodology chapter by providing essential guidelines. The guidelines are drawn from an actual qualitative research methodology chapter of a PhD thesis in the field of tourism and social cohesion.

Experience Sampling Method in a Qualitative Study of Tourists' Smartphone Use

This chapter explores the use of experience sampling method (ESM) in a qualitative research design, departing from reflections on ontological and epistemological aspects of the tourist experience. It suggests that the tourist experience can be studied in its ordinary moments and proposes the use of ESM to capture such experience of “everydayness.” The chapter illustrates how the method can be used and provides some guidelines for its implementation, drawing examples from a qualitative study on tourists' smartphone use that combines ESM questionnaires with semi-structured interviews. ESM consists of sending participants several micro-questionnaires at random times during their trip, asking questions about their experience and perceptions. Thanks to modern mobile technologies, the method can be used on participants' own smartphones, through various programmable applications. The method allows to inquire into aspects of experience that the participants themselves may not be aware of, or may fail to recollect after the trip, thus increasing ecological validity and reducing recall bias.

Ethnography Explained: Toward Conducting, Analyzing, and Writing an Ethnographic Narrative

Throughout this chapter you will be exposed to the meaning and types of ethnographic research. An emphasis will be made on the use of ethnography in hospitality and tourism settings. Variations of ethnography such as netnography, chrono ethnography, and ethnographic interviews are explained along with their benefits and drawbacks. This chapter includes guidance on how to conduct an ethnography including the scope and context, length of the project, access to and selection of informants, position of the researcher, issues of concealment or disclosure, and the language used to write the ethnographic narrative. Furthermore, you will be exposed to some of the principal forms of analysis in ethnography including thematic, domain, taxonomic, componential, sociograms, and typologies. Finally, this chapter provides examples of some of the main decisions involved by a researcher engaged in ethnographic inquiry.

Abductive Thematic Analysis in Hospitality and Tourism Research

The chapter discusses abductive thematic analysis as an innovative qualitative methodology in hospitality and tourism research. The novelty of the abductive approach is to combine the power of both deductive and inductive reasoning: it is possible to initiate the research starting from an existing theoretical, without renouncing to a creative phase where the researcher interprets the phenomenon beyond the words utilized and theorizes dependencies between concepts. The chapter further presents a case study to illustrate how abductive thematic analysis can be applied to study small hospitality and tourism businesses. The chapter further highlights the benefits of adapting thematic analysis to abductive reasoning, which is a paradigmatic position thus adding rigor to hospitality and tourism. The chapter finally highlights future avenues for development of methodology research toward adding further rigor to this novel methodology.

The Comparison-Based Case Study Approach in Hospitality and Tourism Research *

This chapter provides a detailed account of the comparison-based case study approach and argues that traditional case study approaches should adopt the comparison-based case study model. This study outlines the benefits and drawbacks of the comparative case study design. The penultimate section provides an example of a comparison-based case study to illustrate the virtues and the shortcomings of this mode of research. The chapter concludes with suggestions to aid novice tourism researchers and postgraduate students.

Action Research in Hospitality and Tourism Research

In the context of tourism and hospitality studies, the potential of action research for generating robust actionable knowledge has not been yet realized. This chapter provides an account of the theory and practice of action research, demonstrates how it may be designed and implemented, and how it may generate actionable knowledge. It provides illustrative examples and shows how this research approach aligns effectively with some of the themes that currently engage the attention of researchers in the fields of tourism and hospitality such as process improvement, sustainability, and community-based tourism development. Thus, it makes a case for more widespread use of action research in the field.

Applying Grounded Theory in Hospitality and Tourism Research: Critical Reflections

Grounded theory (GT) is an inductive paradigm-based research method that focuses more on data depth and quality than the generalizability of results to a broader population and is substantially different from conventional hypothetico-deductive research approaches. GT has become a popular research approach in several social science fields including tourism and hospitality. By reviewing the development of GT and its associated philosophical underpinning, this chapter compares three widely used GT approaches advocated by Glaser (Classical GT), Strauss and Corbin (Straussian GT), and Charmaz (Constructivist GT). Given the various interpretations and approaches to GT, this chapter therefore offers an overview of the key distinguishing characteristics of these approaches to GT so as to facilitate more thoughtful approach selection in keeping with philosophical positions, research questions, and research objectives. This chapter then proposes a step-by-step guideline of the application of this method through an illustrative example in tourism. The chapter concludes with a critical reflection on this widely used qualitative research method and considers possible future developments.

What's Past Is Prologue: Oral History's Offer to Hospitality and Tourism Research

The purpose of this chapter is to explain and celebrate the benefits of oral history for tourism and hospitality research. Oral history is accessible and interdisciplinary, often used in local projects and community groups which creates some disdain from traditional academics. Despite this, there is an accepted call for the depth and detail in tourism and hospitality research that oral history can bring. The opinion of the authors is that many researchers are not as transparent as they could be about their research method and this is a disappointment for those that wish to gain a full understanding of what has taken place and why. So, this chapter will (1) elaborate on the reasons for and development of oral history technique; (2) illustrate how this method can be used by researchers; (3) provide examples from the extant literature; and (4) conclude with suggestions of how this type of research may be taken further. A variety of references have been used to encourage wider reading and the aim is to be thought provoking and encouraging. Tourism and hospitality from any angle are all about the human experience and oral history interviews bring depth and richness to both present and future interpretations.

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Medical, Health and Wellness Tourism Research—A Review of the Literature (1970–2020) and Research Agenda

1 Institute for Big Data Research in Tourism, School of Tourism Sciences, Beijing International Studies University, Chaoyang District, Beijing 100024, China; nc.ude.usib@anilgnohz (L.Z.); moc.361@5220niloabgned (B.D.); moc.361@gnay__uyil (L.Y.)

Baolin Deng

Alastair m. morrison.

2 Greenwich Business School, Old Royal Naval College, University of Greenwich, London SE10 9SL, UK; [email protected]

J. Andres Coca-Stefaniak

Associated data.

Data are reported in the article.

Medical, health and wellness tourism and travel represent a dynamic and rapidly growing multi-disciplinary economic activity and field of knowledge. This research responds to earlier calls to integrate research on travel medicine and tourism. It critically reviews the literature published on these topics over a 50-year period (1970 to 2020) using CiteSpace software. Some 802 articles were gathered and analyzed from major databases including the Web of Science and Scopus. Markets (demand and behavior), destinations (development and promotion), and development environments (policies and impacts) emerged as the main three research themes in medical-health-wellness tourism. Medical-health-wellness tourism will integrate with other care sectors and become more embedded in policy-making related to sustainable development, especially with regards to quality of life initiatives. A future research agenda for medical-health-tourism is discussed.

1. Introduction

In 1841, Thomas Cook organized a tour of 570 people to travel from Leicester to Loughborough’s hot springs [ 1 ]. This was the first historically documented tour arranged by a travel agent. However, far earlier, people in Ancient Greece used to travel considerable distances for medical treatment [ 2 ]. Thus, the pursuit of health and medical care has been an essential reason for travel for centuries.

Today, people continue to travel in the pursuit of relaxation, for health reasons, as well as fitness and well-being [ 3 ]. As a response to this growing demand, countries, medical providers, and hospitality and tourism organizations are adapting to offer a broader set of medical, health, and wellness tourism experiences.

The concept of medical-health-wellness tourism has emerged relatively recently as a scholarly field of enquiry in tourism [ 4 , 5 , 6 ]. Although it has been pointed out that travel medicine has existed for 25 years [ 7 ], much of the research related to this has traditionally focused on medical aspects with inadequate consideration given to travel or tourism. Medical-health-wellness tourism can be classified into two primary categories according to a tourist’s choice - obligatory or elective. Obligatory travel occurs when required treatments are unavailable or illegal in the place of origin of the traveler and, as a result of this, it becomes necessary to travel elsewhere to access these services. Elective travel is usually scheduled when the time and costs are most suitable, and the treatments may even be available in the travelers’ home regions [ 8 ]. Other studies have classified these forms of travel and tourism into specific types based on the purpose of the treatment, such as dental tourism [ 9 ], stem cell tourism [ 10 ], spa tourism [ 11 ], springs tourism [ 12 ], IVF treatment [ 13 ], hip and knee replacements, ophthalmologic procedures, cosmetic surgery [ 5 ], cardiac care, and organ transplants [ 14 ].

A consensus is yet to be established on the definitions and contents of medical-health-wellness tourism, and how they interact, including their potential overlaps. Medical travel and tourism, health tourism, wellness tourism, and other similar terms (e.g., birth tourism, cosmetic surgery tourism, dental tourism) tend to be investigated separately in tourism research [ 15 , 16 , 17 , 18 , 19 , 20 ]. Notwithstanding the apparently disconnected nature of published research in this field, medical-health-wellness tourism has become much more popular for a variety of economic, cultural, lifestyle and leisure reasons [ 11 , 21 , 22 ]. Given their rapid development, it seems appropriate to conduct a comprehensive review of the definitions, history, typologies, driving factors, and future directions for these forms of tourism.

This study firstly reviews existing scholarly research through a meta-analysis of medical-health-wellness publications in the context of tourism ( Section 2 ). Then, the method used to analyze the data collected from ISI Web of Science is outlined in Section 3 , followed by a discussion of the research findings ( Section 4 ). Finally, in Section 5 , the conclusions, future research directions, and limitations of the study are presented.

2. Scholarly Reviews and Meta-Analyses of Medical, Health and Wellness Tourism

Previous reviews of the literature and meta-analyses have contributed to clarifying the overall understanding of medical-health-wellness tourism. Existing literature reviews tend to be very broad, spanning health-oriented tourism, medical tourism, sport and fitness tourism, adventure tourism, well-being (Yang sheng in Chinese) tourism, cosmetic surgery tourism, spa tourism, and more.

Medical tourism is an expanding global phenomenon [ 15 , 23 , 24 ]. Driven by high healthcare costs, long patient waiting lists, or a lack of access to new therapies in some countries, many medical tourists (mainly from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe) often seek access to care in Asia, Central and Southern Europe, and Latin America [ 25 , 26 , 27 ]. There are potential biosecurity and nosocomial risks associated with international medical tourism [ 28 ]. One research study collected 133 electronic copies of Australian television programs (66 items) and newspapers (65) about medical care overseas from 2005 to 2011 [ 29 ]. By analyzing these stories, the researchers discovered that Australian media coverage of medical tourism was focused geographically mainly on Asia, featuring cosmetic surgery procedures and therapies generally not available in Australia. However, people tend to engage with medical tourism for a broad range of reasons. In some cases, it is better service quality or lower treatment costs that prevail. In other cases, treatments may not be available locally, or there are long patient waiting lists for non-emergency medical care. Some 100 selected articles were reviewed and categorized into different types of medical tourism depending on the medical treatments they involved, such as dentistry, cosmetic surgery, or fertility work [ 25 ]. An analysis was done on 252 articles on medical tourism posted on the websites of the Korean Tourism Organization and the Korean International Medical Association [ 30 ]. This work enhanced the understanding of medical tourism in Korea as well as identifying the key developmental characteristics. Another research study detailed patient experiences in medical travel, including decision making, motivations, risks, and first-hand accounts [ 31 ]. A literature review was conducted on international travel for cosmetic surgery tourism [ 5 ] and it concluded that the medical travel literature suffered from a lack of focus on the non-surgery-related morbidity of these tourists.

Another set of authors defined health tourism as a branch of tourism in general in which people aim to receive specific treatments or seek an enhancement to their mental, physical, or spiritual well-being [ 32 ]. This systematic literature review assessed the value of destinations’ natural resources and related activities for health tourism. It was argued that most of the research on health tourism has focused on travel from developed to developing countries, and that there is a need to study travel between developed nations [ 33 ].

Wellness tourism is a key area of relevant research as well [ 34 ]. One research study reviewed trends in wellness tourism research and concluded that tourism marketing had so far failed to tap into the deeper meaning of wellness as a concept [ 35 ]. The emergence of health and wellness tourism was explored with their associated social, political, and economic influences [ 13 ]. A review was conducted of the development of wellness tourism using the concept of holistic wellness tourism where it was found that the positive impacts of this type of tourism on social and economic well-being were key to its rising levels of popularity [ 36 ].

All in all, although earlier literature reviews provide invaluable insights into medical-health-wellness tourism, there is a lack of studies that approach this concept in a holistic way. This research seeks to redress this balance by delivering a holistic review of the literature with the following objectives in mind: (1) investigating international journal articles across the typologies of tourism outlined above; (2) identifying influential scholars that have significantly contributed to this field; and (3) summarizing key trends in markets, industry development and promotion, as well as policy-making and impacts. In order to achieve this, a systematic review was conducted to analyze research articles in medical-health-wellness tourism published over a 50-year period from 1970 to 2020.

3.1. Data Collection

A two-step approach was adopted for the development of a database of publications for analysis with CiteSpace. The first step involved a search for relevant, high-quality refereed articles in medical-health-wellness tourism. Several academic journal databases, within tourism and hospitality but also including other disciplines too, were searched for relevant articles in medical-health-wellness tourism using a set of selected keywords. The ISI Web of Science and Scopus were chosen for this purpose as a result of their international recognition and comprehensiveness. Articles included in the list of references of selected articles were also considered valid as part of this search, in line with methodological suggestions for systematic literature searches [ 37 ]. Cited articles were also collected from prominent journals, including the Southern Medical Journal, Journal of Travel Medicine, BMC Public Health, Annals of Tourism Research, Tourism Management, Journal of Travel Research, and Journal of Vacation Marketing. Non-tourism related journals were selected as well including Amfiteatru Economic, Asia Pacific Viewpoint, Public Personal Management, and Revista de Historia Industrial. Adding these references not only delivered a higher number of relevant articles to the database, but it also increased its representativeness.

The second step involved using appropriate, valid and representative search keywords. A total of 986 articles were gathered using the following keywords: medical tourism, health tourism, wellness tourism, and spa tourism. After careful sorting of these publications, using their abstracts and keywords, the number of articles in the database was narrowed down to 802. Of these, 615 were obtained using the keywords medical tourism or wellness tourism, 157 were located by searching for health tourism, and 30 were discovered using spa tourism as the search term. Using the above keywords and restricting the search to 50 years (1970–2020), the first article was found to be published in 1974. As a result, the ensuing analysis of the literature comprises the period from 1974 to 2020.

3.2. Data Analysis

The research tool used for this study was CiteSpace, which is a bibliometric analysis software developed by Professor Chaomei Chen of Drexel University based on the Java framework [ 38 ]. This software assists researchers in the analysis of research trends in a specific field of knowledge and presents scientific knowledge structures through visualization. It has been applied to numerous research fields by scholars from many countries. The data processing for this research used the software V.5.7.R2 (64-bit) version.

The data were classified and analyzed to achieve three specific goals. The first and primary goal of this review work was to analyze the content of the chosen articles, including year of publication, authors, journal impact factors, and the institutional affiliations of scholars in this field. The data were then sorted into categories. The order of authorship was not recorded. For multiple-authored articles, each author was given the same level of credit as sole authors. Second, one of the aims of this research was to discover associations in authorships, regions, and affiliations using statistical analysis. Third, the 802 articles were classified into dominant thematic categories applying the approach proposed by Miles and Huberman [ 39 ]. Three flows of analytical activities were targeted here: data reduction, data display, and verification of data. In the data reduction activity, the word count technique was adopted. Through content analysis, each article’s title and full-text body were recorded for word counting. The most frequently appearing words were extracted to represent the main topics of the collected articles. The dominant thematic categories to be explored further based on the content analysis and word count were: (1) tourism market: tourist demand and behavior; (2) tourism destinations: development and promotion; and (3) tourism development contexts: policies and impacts.

Finally, in order to refine the set of topic sub-categories, abstracts, first paragraphs, and conclusions were read to make the most appropriate assignments. This approach contributed to the more advanced stages of development of the classification of sub-categories and, consequently, the verification of findings.

This section presents the results of the data analysis carried out in this study and provides further insights on the methodology adopted.

4.1. Overview of Articles Published

The 802 articles selected were all published in English and in international peer-reviewed academic journals. Figure 1 displays the timeline distribution of the research on medical-health-wellness tourism and shows a steady growth in publications in this field between 1974 and 2020. This growth in scholarly activity is particularly significant from 2010 onwards. In fact, 74.9% of the articles were published between 2013 and 2020.

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Number of articles by publication year.

4.2. Source Journals

Initially, the first stage of this literature search involved identifying academic journals publishing research articles on medical-health-wellness tourism. It was found that 38 articles had been published on this topic in Tourism Management, and 24 articles in Social Science & Medicine. Table 1 shows the top ten tourism journals for publications in this field, with Tourism Management in first place.

Tourism journals publishing articles on medical-health-wellness tourism.

Non-tourism journals in fields such as business, economics, and health, also contributed a significant number of publications in this field, as shown in Table 2 .

Non-tourism journals publishing articles on medical-health-wellness tourism.

4.3. Author Productivity and Authorship Analysis

The second aim was to identify the most prolific scholars in medical-health-wellness tourism research. This was achieved using co-occurrence network analysis of the authors of relevant research articles ( Figure 2 ). Each node in the co-occurrence map shown in Figure 2 represents a given scholar. The larger the node, the more articles the authors published on the topic, with the connections between nodes representing cooperation between authors.

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Author article productivity.

Among the 2381 authors identified, 1820 (76.4%) contributed to only one article, whereas the remaining 561 (23.6%) authored two or more articles. The three most prolific authors were Jeremy Snyder, Valorie Crooks, and Rory Johnston.

4.4. Author Regions and Affiliations

Another objective was to illustrate the relationships and networks of authors publishing research on medical-health-wellness tourism. An analysis of countries this research originated from was carried out using the CiteSpace software. Figure 3 shows that scholars publishing in this field were distributed across 61 countries. The largest group of authors originated from the USA ( n =197). The second and third largest groups corresponded to Canada ( n = 88) and the UK ( n = 84), respectively, followed by Australia ( n = 70) and South Korea ( n = 65). As shown in Figure 3 , authors from the USA and Canada have made the most significant contributions to medical-health-wellness tourism based on the number of journal articles published.

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Country of origin of authors in medical-health-wellness tourism.

As shown in Figure 4 , a significant number of scholars publishing in this field ( n = 47) were affiliated to Simon Fraser University in Canada. This university was followed by Sejong University in South Korea ( n = 13), and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine ( n = 13) in the UK. The top universities in terms of author frequency were based in Canada, USA, Australia, UK, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

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Institutions of authors.

4.5. Thematic Analysis of Research

The fourth research objective was to elicit the prevailing research themes using the 802 articles gathered. First, an analysis of keyword frequency was performed to identify the main research interests. High frequency keywords reflect the research ‘hotspots’ in the field. Using CiteSpace’s keyword visualization analysis function, the keyword co-occurrence knowledge map of medical-health-wellness tourism research was drawn to grasp the research ‘hotspots’ ( Figure 5 ).

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Frequencies of research keywords.

Then, content analysis performed on the articles gathered for this study identified three main themes, namely: markets (tourist demand and behavior), destinations (development and promotion), and development environments (policies and impacts). An uneven distribution of research themes is highlighted in Figure 6 and Figure 7 .

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Timeline of research keyword appearance.

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Themes of research articles.

4.6. Markets: Demand and Behavior

Previous studies have shown that the growth of medical-health-wellness tourism in developing countries is largely linked to lower costs, shorter patient waiting lists, and better quality of care [ 40 ]. Similarly, it is suggested that the inequalities and failures in domestic health care systems often lead to people seeking treatment to travel abroad to obtain it [ 41 ]. In general terms, higher costs, long patient waiting lists, the relative affordability of international air travel, favorable exchange rates, and the availability of well-qualified doctors and medical staff in developing countries, all contribute to this situation [ 42 ].

As the demand for these forms of tourism has risen over time, processes and factors influencing decision-making have attracted growing levels of scholarly enquiry. For example, a political responsibility model was used to develop a decision-making process for individual medical tourists [ 43 ]. A sequential decision-making process has been proposed, including considerations of the required treatments, location of treatment, and quality and safety issues attendant to seeking care [ 44 ]. Accordingly, it has been found that health information and the current regulatory environment tend to affect the availability of medical care.

Multiple factors may simultaneously influence decisions related to the destination for care, including culture [ 45 ], social norms [ 46 ], religious factors [ 47 ], and the institutional environment [ 48 ]. It is suggested that socioeconomic conditions shape medical travelers’ decision-making and spending behavior relative to treatment, accommodation, and transport choices as well as the length of stay [ 49 ]. Perceived value is a key predictor of tourist intentions. More specifically, perceived medical quality, service quality, and enjoyment significantly influence the intention to travel abroad for medical-health-wellness purposes [ 50 ]. Further, perceived quality, satisfaction, and trust in the staff and clinics have significant associations affecting intentions to revisit clinics and the destination country [ 51 ]. An empirical study was conducted and found that physical convenience in willingness to stay and time and effort savings in perceived price were key factors affecting the decision-making related to medical hotels [ 52 ]. In addition, the level of perceived advantages, price perceptions, and willingness to stay were found to differ significantly between first-time patients and those with two or more previous visits. In addition, it was found that community communication was a major factor influencing decision-making. For instance, it is argued that virtual community membership has a strong influence on tourist behaviors and the way information is transmitted [ 53 ].

Compared to other tourists, the mental activity and behavior of medical-health-wellness travelers are quite different. Medical tourists are less likely to question their need for surgery and tend to be much readier to accept it [ 54 ]. The emotion and anxiety conditions of medical tourists differ from others’ experiences of travel and tourism, as well as their giving and receiving of transnational health care [ 55 ]. It has been found that language barriers and parenting responsibilities can be significant challenges, while hospital staff and their own families are often major sources of support for medical tourists [ 56 ]. Furthermore, there are significant differences among visitors from different countries in terms of choices, discomfort, preferred product items, and attitudes towards medical tourism [ 57 , 58 ].

4.7. Destinations: Development and Promotion

In response to the demands of medical-health-wellness tourism, destination development and promotion are attracting growing levels of scholarly interest. Scholars from different countries have discussed the market status of Turkey [ 12 , 59 ], the Caribbean [ 60 ] and Barbados [ 61 ], India [ 62 , 63 ], Canada [ 64 ], and Albania [ 65 ]. Table 3 outlines the most frequently researched country destinations in this respect.

Medical-health-wellness destination frequency in keywords.

The advantages and disadvantages of Turkey were examined and indicated needs for improvements [ 59 ]. In another research study, three years (2005, 2007, and 2011) of actual and projected operational cost data were evaluated for three countries: USA, India, and Thailand [ 66 ]. This study discussed some of the inefficiencies in the U.S. healthcare system, drew attention to informing uninsured or underinsured medical tourists of the benefits and risks, and determined the managerial and cost implications of various surgical procedures in the global healthcare system.

As regards medical-health-wellness tourism destination development, scholars have explored research from various perspectives. Conceptual frameworks have been developed to include tourism destinations and services in the context of medical and health tourism [ 59 , 67 ]. Advice has been provided from the perspective of public and private hospital doctors [ 68 ]. The principles of designing hospital hotels have been proposed, including proper planning, low prices of tourism services, medical education, creating websites on medical tourism, and health tourism policy councils [ 69 ]. Above all, scholars have posited that meeting or exceeding tourist expectations and requirements should remain the top priorities as regards the effective development of medical tourism destinations [ 69 , 70 ].

Once a medical-health-wellness tourism destination is developed successfully, marketing and promotion are essential to attract tourists. As part of this process, informing potential patients about procedural options, treatment facilities, tourism opportunities, and travel arrangements are the keys to success [ 71 ]. Most tourists rely on the Internet to gather information about destinations, often using mobile devices or personal computers [ 72 ], with websites and social media playing a key role in this respect, and specifically with regards to information about destinations’ medical facilities, staff expertise, services, treatments, equipment, and successful cases [ 73 ]. For example, apps for medical travel are available to attract tourists and promote medical tourism in Taiwan [ 74 ].

Numerous businesses promote medical-health-wellness travel, including medical travel companies, health insurance companies, travel agencies, medical clinics, and hospitals [ 75 ]. Among them, medical travel facilitators play a significant role as engagement moderators between prospective patients in one country and medical facilities elsewhere around the world [ 76 ]. The services offered on medical tourism facilitator websites vary considerably from one country to another [ 77 ]. Although medical travel facilitators operate on a variety of different scales and market their services differently, they all emphasize the consumer experience through advertising quality assurance and logistical support [ 78 ].

Scholarly research has also considered the factors that need to be taken into consideration in medical-health-wellness tourism promotion. This research has suggested that destinations should identify the specifics in their health tourism resources, attractions, and products, seek collaboration with others, and build a common regional brand [ 79 ]. Regional differences should be considered in the process of marketing as medical-health-wellness tourism is a global industry [ 77 ]. International advertisers need to understand the important, contemporary, and cultural characteristics of target customers before promotion [ 80 ]. Similarly, destinations need to portray safe and advanced treatment facilities to dispel potential patient worries and suspicions. Messages related solely to low cost may detract from and even undermine messages about quality [ 71 ]. However, while benefits are highly emphasized online, websites may fail to report any procedural, postoperative, or legal concerns and risks associated with medical tourism [ 81 ].

4.8. Development Environments: Policies and Impacts

The rise of medical-health-wellness tourism emphasizes the privatization of healthcare, an increasing dependence on technology, and the accelerating globalization of healthcare and tourism [ 82 ]. There are challenges and opportunities in the development of these tourism forms. For instance, it has been suggested that medical tourism distorts national health care systems, and raises critical national economic, ethical, and social questions [ 83 ]. Along with the development of medical-health-wellness tourism, social-cultural contradictions [ 84 ] and economic inequities are widening in terms of access, cost, and quality of healthcare [ 85 ]. It is argued that this tourism leads destinations to emphasize tertiary care for foreigners at the expense of basic healthcare for their citizens [ 86 ]. Moreover, in some instances, this phenomenon can exacerbate the medical brain drain from the public sector to the private sector [ 43 , 87 , 88 ], leading to rising private health care and health insurance costs [ 88 ].

While medical-health-wellness tourism is a potential source of revenue, it also brings a certain level of risk to destinations and tourists [ 89 ]. The spread of this type of tourism has been posited as a contributing factor to the spread of infectious diseases and public health crises [ 90 , 91 ]. Medical tourists are at risk of hospital-associated and procedure-related infections as well as diseases endemic to the countries where the service is provided [ 92 ]. Similarly, the safety of some treatments offered has also been the subject of growing levels of scrutiny. Contemporary scholarship examining clinical outcomes in medical travel for cosmetic surgery has identified cases in which patients traveled abroad for medical procedures and subsequently returned home with infections and other surgical complications [ 93 ]. Stem cell tourism has been criticized on the grounds of consumer fraud, blatant lack of scientific justification, and patient safety [ 94 , 95 ]. During the process of medical tourism, inadequate communication, and information asymmetry in cross-cultural communication may bring medical risks [ 96 ].

Medical-health-wellness tourism has emerged as a global healthcare phenomenon. Policy guidance is vital for the development of this sector in the future [ 97 ]. There are policy implications for the planning and development of medical-health-wellness tourism destinations [ 98 ]. Generally, it has been found that the medical-health-wellness tourism sector tends to perform better in countries with a clear policy framework for this activity [ 99 ]. Similarly, scholars have argued the need for a clearer policy framework regulating tourism agencies and the information and services they provide [ 100 ]. The upsurge of these tourism forms presents new opportunities and challenges for policy makers in the health sector. It has been argued that existing policy processes are mainly based on entrenched ideological positions and more attention should be paid to robust evidence of impact [ 101 ]. The UK developed policies focused on ’patient choice’ that allow people who are able and willing to choose to travel further for healthcare [ 102 ]. However, more robust policy making is still required to strengthen national health services and facilitate medical-health-wellness tourism sector development in destinations [ 103 , 104 ].

5. Discussion and Conclusions

5.1. generation discussion.

This study is based on a literature review of 802 articles on medical-health-wellness tourism from 1970 to 2020. Jeremy Snyder was found to be the most prolific author in this field with 45 articles. It has been found that the literature on this topic can be summarized into three themes: markets (tourist demand and behavior), destinations (development and promotion), and development environments (policies and impacts). The scholarly research in this growing field has undergone a shift in emphasis from tourist demand and behavior to the promotion and development of destinations, and, more recently, to policies and impacts.

To attract more tourists, destinations should explore their potential for medical-health-wellness tourism. Accessibility, procedural options, treatment facilities, travel arrangements, safety guarantees, and government policies remain influential factors. In the development and promotion of this form of tourism, childhood vaccinations, oral health, legal frameworks, evaluation systems, entrance systems, and macro-policy continue to be areas of concern and where further research is required. Above all, meeting or exceeding tourist expectations and requirements is the most important consideration to promote medical-health-wellness tourism. Similarly, appropriate policy guidelines and frameworks are necessary to support this form of tourism. Importantly, medical-health-wellness tourism may result in negative impacts on the healthcare service provision for local residents in poorer countries, with tourists from richer countries benefiting to the detriment of local communities. However, if managed successfully, this form of tourism can also be a force for good in terms of fostering the economic development of countries delivering these services.

The results indicated that the research literature is spread across a range of different disciplines and there is not one single venue for publishing in this field. A better integration of the research and improved understanding of the overlaps among medical, health, and wellness tourism is required.

5.2. Future Research Trends

5.2.1. industrial perspective.

Medical-health-wellness tourism will, over time, integrate fully with other healthcare and wellness services. Similarly, medical challenges such as disease prevention and traditional medicine remain essential directions for the future of health tourism. This form of tourism will also integrate further with industries such as wellness culinary tourism, mindfulness tourism, active tourism (including adventure tourism), and even cosmetic surgery tourism, leading to a vast array of potential research avenues linked to health tourism destinations. These futures will greatly promote the physical and mental health of wellness tourists. This is another emerging direction for future medical-health-wellness tourism research.

5.2.2. Destination Development Perspectives

Medical-health-wellness tourism will become more significant forms of tourism and impact the development of different nations and areas. For example, this tourism will integrate with Chinese traditional culture. Traditional treatments and remedies will become more of an advantage and should be a topic for future medical-health-wellness tourism research, as well as in other countries with unique health cultures, treatments, and procedures.

Thailand, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries are favored by tourists from developed countries due to lower costs. In the future, these areas need to focus more on tourism product design, health tourism marketing, community participation, and cross-cultural communication. Developed countries such as the USA, Japan, and South Korea, will use advanced technology and medical equipment to take the path to high-end, high value-added tourism development. This will lead to some new research opportunities.

5.2.3. Tourist Perspectives

Compared with other types of tourists, the needs of medical-health-wellness tourists will receive more attention. Based on previous research, the psychology and perceived value of these tourists are the focus of considerable research. In the future, more emphasis will be paid to people and especially to their psychological and physiological needs. Research on demand will become a more popular topic of this tourism research. Second, the current research on medical-health-wellness tourists is concentrated on the study of tourists in the USA and Canada. Future research should be more dispersed and diversified. Tourists from emerging countries such as Eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa will receive more attention.

5.3. Limitations

This study, inevitably, has a number of limitations, including the relatively modest amount of articles collected. Only articles written in English were considered. The sample number is rather small to represent the general research trends in medical-health-wellness tourism from 1970 to 2020. Therefore, it is desirable to increase the number of publications and expand the time and language coverage of the research articles to gain more insights.

Although the research scope of medical-health-wellness tourism is vast, it lacks in-depth exploration. Current research is fragmented, lacks continuity and comprehensiveness, and therefore cannot be considered systematic. Also, the legal aspects of the development of this tourism, environmental capacity of medical-health tourism, wellness tourism management, and mechanisms of profit distribution for medical-health-wellness tourism are less frequently mentioned in research articles. Innovation in this field and international cooperation, and talent cultivation are also not sufficiently addressed. The methods used in medical-health-wellness tourism research are often simple. Scholars still use traditional descriptive statistics and related analysis methods. The theoretical foundation of medical-health-wellness tourism is still relatively weak. We are in the primary stage of this tourism research and in the development of related tourism products. People all over the world are eager for healthy lives. Medical-health-wellness tourism is likely to play a more important future role in travel medicine and tourism research. Beyond what has been done already, follow-up research should be focused on interdisciplinarity and based on the integration of industries. More theoretical research is necessary to support the future growth of medical-health-wellness tourism.

Author Contributions

Formal analysis, L.Z.; Funding acquisition, L.Z.; Investigation, L.Z.; Supervision, B.D.; Data collection and analysis, B.D.; Writing-original draft, A.M.M. and J.A.C.-S.; Writing—original draft, A.M.M.; Writing—review & editing, A.M.M., J.A.C.-S. and L.Y.; Data collection and analysis. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.

National Natural Science Foundation of China, Grant no: 71673015); Ethnic research project of the National Committee of the people’s Republic of China. NO: 2020-GMD-089; Fundamental Research Funds for the Central Universities of Beijing Foreign Studies University, 2021JS001.

Institutional Review Board Statement

No human subjects were involved in this research and no institutional review was required.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable as there were no human subjects.

Data Availability Statement

Conflicts of interest.

The authors have no conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note: MDPI stays neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Handbook of Research Methods for Tourism and Hospitality Management

Profile image of Robin Nunkoo, Ph.D

As research in tourism and hospitality reaches maturity, a growing number of methodological approaches are being utilized and, in addition, this knowledge is dispersed across a wide range of journals. Consequently there is a broad and multidisciplinary community of tourism and hospitality researchers whom, at present, need to look widely for support on methods. In this volume, researchers fulfil a pressing need by clearly presenting methodological issues within tourism and hospitality research alongside particular methods and share their experiences of what works, what does not work and where challenges and innovations lie.

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Robin Nunkoo, Ph.D

The tourism and hospitality research landscape is constantly evolving and the field is growing in maturity. One of the distinguishing features that characterize this evolution is the proliferation of academic journals. The number of tourism and hospitality journals has increased from less than 10 before the 1980s to around 300 in 2017 (Shani & Uriely, 2017). Among the various knowledge dissemination channels that exist, academic journals play a leading position and serve several important functions. They play a central role in knowledge production and are considered key to knowledge advancement in any discipline (Xiao & Smith, 2007). Journals signify the existence of a scientific domain, niche discipline, or school of thought (Nie, Ma, & Nakamori, 2009). The various tourism and hospitality journals constitute the main reservoir of knowledge for researchers, students, and practitioners alike. Interestingly, these journals have been in their own right, the focus of investigations, described by Figueroa-Domecq, Pritchard, Segovia-Pérez, Morgan, and Villacé-Molinero (2015) as “the scholarship on the scholarship” of tourism and hospitality research (p. 88). Within these groups of studies, feature fervent debates on research methodologies and related aspects. For example, Xiao and Smith (2006a) noted a rise in the number of articles published in Annals of Tourism Research that has as main objective, the the dissemination of new concepts, models, and methods. Such an argument can also be extended to other journals in the field, where articles focusing on research methods are common.Informed by the above debates, this volume contains discussions on various quantitative, qualitative, and mixed-methods approaches, as well as other chapters on contemporary tourism and hospitality research that are common to both approaches. It raises wider methodological debates by drawing together the wealth of research methods experience gained by tourism and hospitality researchers in one volume. The handbook comprises of 43 chapters authored by 60 individuals from diverse educational and research backgrounds and geographical locations. The handbook also has an adequate representation of female authors in the field. It is my hope that such heterogeneity in the authors’ characteristics has led to a handbook that reflects adequately the diverse research methods and methodologies used by tourism and hospitality scholars world-wide and the debates that abound.

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shiva jahani

International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management

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Tourism Review

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Purpose The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview of past perspectives and future trends in tourism and hospitality research. Design/methodology/approach The study grounds the discussion on the timeline evolution of quantitative research methods. Findings Although still under-recognized by scholars, mixed methods represent the future of research in tourism and hospitality. Research limitations/implications The investigation is confined to quantitative methods. Originality/value No other surveys sketch a period of 150 years of quantitative analyses in tourism and hospitality.

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PurposeThis study aims to describe the development of hospitality research in terms of research methods and data sources used in the 2010s.Design/methodology/approachContent analyses of the research methods and data sources used in original hospitality research published in the 2010s in the Cornell Hospitality Quarterly (CQ), International Journal of Hospitality Management (IJHM), International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management (IJCHM), Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research (JHTR) and International Hospitality Review (IHR) were conducted. It describes whether the time span, functional areas and geographic regions of data sources were related to the research methods and data sources.FindingsResults from 2,759 original hospitality empirical articles showed that marketing research used various research methods and data sources. Most finance articles used archival data, while most human resources articles used survey designs with organizational data. In addition, only...

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Ecotourism and sustainable development: a scientometric review of global research trends

  • Published: 21 February 2022
  • Volume 25 , pages 2977–3003, ( 2023 )

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  • Lishan Xu 1 , 2 ,
  • Changlin Ao   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8826-7356 1 , 3 ,
  • Baoqi Liu 1 &
  • Zhenyu Cai 1  

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With the increasing attention and awareness of the ecological environment, ecotourism is becoming ever more popular, but it still brings problems and challenges to the sustainable development of the environment. To solve such challenges, it is necessary to review literature in the field of ecotourism and determine the key research issues and future research directions. This paper uses scientometrics implemented by CiteSpace to conduct an in-depth systematic review of research and development in the field of ecotourism. Two bibliographic datasets were obtained from the Web of Science, including a core dataset and an expanded dataset, containing articles published between 2003 and 2021. Our research shows that ecotourism has been developing rapidly in recent years. The research field of ecotourism spans many disciplines and is a comprehensive interdisciplinary subject. According to the research results, the evolution of ecotourism can be roughly divided into three phases: human disturbance, ecosystem services and sustainable development. It could be concluded that it has entered the third stage of Shneider’s four-stage theory of scientific discipline. The research not only identifies the main clusters and their advance in ecotourism research based on high impact citations and research frontier formed by citations, but also presents readers with new insights through intuitive visual images.

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1 Introduction

Ecotourism, which has appeared in academic literature since the late 1980s, is a special form of nature-based tourism that maintains the well-being of the local community while protecting the environment and provides tourists with a satisfying nature experience and enjoyment (Ceballos-Lascuráin, 1996 ; Higgins, 1996 ; Orams, 1995 ). With years of research and development, ecotourism has risen to be a subject of investigation in the field of tourism research (Weaver & Lawton, 2007 ). In 2002, the United Nations declared it the International Year of Ecotourism (IYE), and the professional Journal of Ecotourism was established in the same year.

With the progress and maturity of ecotourism as an academic research field, countless scholars have put forward standards and definitions for ecotourism (Sirakaya et al., 1999 ; Wight, 1993 ). The main objectives of ecotourism emphasize long-term sustainable development (Whitelaw et al., 2014 ), including the conservation of natural resources, the generation of economic income, education, local participation and the promotion of social benefits such as local economic development and infrastructure (Ardoin et al., 2015 ; Coria & Calfucura, 2012 ; Krüger, 2005 ; Oladeji et al., 2021 ; Ross & Wall, 1999 ; Valdivieso et al., 2015 ). It can also boost rural economies and alleviate poverty in developing countries (Snyman, 2017 ; Zhong & Liu, 2017 ).

With unrestricted increasing attention to the ecological environment and the improvement of environmental awareness, ecotourism is becoming ever more prevalent, and the demand for tourism is increasing year by year (CREST, 2019 ). This increase, however, leads to a number of environmental, social and economic challenges in the development of ecotourism. For example, due to the low public awareness of ecotourism, the increase in tourists has brought a series of negative impacts on the local ecological environment, culture and economy, including disrespect for local culture and environmental protection, as well as more infrastructure construction and economic burden to meet the needs of tourists (Ahmad et al., 2018 ; Chiu et al., 2014 ; Shasha et al., 2020 ; Xu et al., 2020 ). Such challenges and contradictions are urgent problems to be tackled by the sustainable development of ecotourism. Especially against the backdrop of the current pandemic, tourism has experienced a severe blow, but climate change and other environmental issues have not been improved (CREST, 2020 ). In this context, facing these challenges and difficulties, it is essential to re-examine the future development path of ecotourism, to explore how government agencies can formulate appropriate management policies while preserving the environment and natural resources to support sustainable tourism development. Accordingly, it is necessary to consult literature in the field of ecotourism to understand the research progress and fundamental research issues, to identify challenges, suitable methods and future research direction of ecotourism.

Some previous reviews of ecotourism offer a preview of research trends in this rapidly developing area. Weaver and Lawton ( 2007 ) provide a comprehensive assessment of the current state and future progress of contemporary ecotourism research, starting with the supply and demand dichotomy of ecotourism, as well as fundamental areas such as quality control, industry, external environment and institutions. Ardoin et al. ( 2015 ) conducted a literature review, analyzing the influence of nature tourism on ecological knowledge, attitudes, behavior and potential research into the future. Niñerola et al. ( 2019 ) used the bibliometric method and VOSviewer to study the papers on sustainable development of tourism in Scopus from 1987 to 2018, including literature landscape and development trends. Shasha et al. ( 2020 ) used bibliometrics and social network analysis to review the research progress of ecotourism from 2001 to 2018 based on the Web of Science database using BibExcel and Gephi and explored the current hot spots and methods of ecotourism research. These reviews have provided useful information for ecotourism research at that time, but cannot reflect the latest research trends and emerging development of ecotourism either of timeliness, data integrity, research themes or methods.

This study aims to reveal the theme pattern, landmark articles and emerging trends in ecotourism knowledge landscape research from macro- to micro-perspectives. Unlike previous literature surveys, from timeliness, our dataset contains articles published between 2003 and 2021, and it will reveal more of the trends that have emerged over the last 3 years. Updating the rapidly developing literature is important as recent discoveries from different areas can fundamentally change collective knowledge (Chen et al., 2012 , 2014a ). To ensure data integrity, two bibliographic datasets were generated from Web of Science, including a core dataset using the topic search and an expanded dataset using the citation expansion method, which is more robust than defining rapidly growing fields using only keyword lists (Chen et al., 2014b ). And from the research theme and method, our review focuses on the area of ecotourism and is instructed by a scientometric method conducted by CiteSpace, an analysis system for visualizing newly developing trends and key changes in scientific literature (Chen et al., 2012 ). Emerging trends are detected based on metrics calculated by CiteSpace, without human intervention or working knowledge of the subject matter (Chen et al., 2012 ). Choosing this approach can cover a more extensive and diverse range of related topics and ensure repeatability of analysis with updated data (Chen et al., 2014b ).

In addition, Shneider’s four-stage theory will be used to interpret the results in this review. According to Shneider’s four-stage theory of scientific discipline (Shneider, 2009 ), the development of a scientific discipline is divided into four stages. Stage I is the conceptualization stage, in which the objects and phenomena of a new discipline or research are established. Stage II is characterized by the development of research techniques and methods that allow researchers to investigate potential phenomena. As a result of methodological advances, there is a further understanding of objects and phenomena in the field of new subjects at this stage. Once the techniques and methods for specific purposes are available, the research enters Stage III, where the investigation is based primarily on the application of the new research method. This stage is productive, in which the research results have considerably enhanced the researchers’ understanding of the research issues and disclosed some unknown phenomena, leading to interdisciplinary convergence or the emergence of new research directions or specialties. The last stage is Stage IV, whose particularity is to transform tacit knowledge into conditional knowledge and generalized knowledge, so as to maintain and transfer the scientific knowledge generated in the first three stages.

The structure of this paper is construed as follows. The second part describes the research methods employed, the scientometric approach and CiteSpace, as well as the data collection. In the third part, the bibliographic landscape of the core dataset is expounded from the macroscopic to the microscopic angle. The fourth part explores the developments and emerging trends in the field of ecotourism based on the expanded dataset and discusses the evolution phase of ecotourism. The final part is the conclusion of this study. Future research of ecotourism is prospected, and the limitations of this study are discussed.

2 Methods and data collection

2.1 scientometric analyses and citespace.

Scientometrics is a branch of informatics that involves quantitative analysis of scientific literature in order to capture emerging trends and knowledge structures in a particular area of study (Chen et al., 2012 ). Science mapping tools generate interactive visual representations of complex structures by feeding a set of scientific literature through scientometrics and visual analysis tools to highlight potentially important patterns and trends for statistical analysis and visualization exploration (Chen, 2017 ). At present, scientometrics is widely used in many fields of research, and there are also many kinds of scientific mapping software widely used by researchers and analysts, such as VosViewer, SCI2, HistCite, SciMAT, Gephi, Pajek and CiteSpace (Chen, 2011 , 2017 ; Chen et al., 2012 ).

Among these tools, CiteSpace is known for its powerful literature co-citation analysis, and its algorithms and features are constantly being refined as it continues to evolve. CiteSpace is a citation visual analysis software developed under the background of scientometrics and data visualization to analyze the basics that are included in scientific analysis (Chen, 2017 ; Chen et al., 2012 ). It is specialized designed to satisfy the need for systematic review in rapidly changing complicated areas, particularly with the ability to identify and explain emerging trends and transition patterns (Chen et al., 2014a ). It supports multiple types of bibliometric research, such as collaborative network analysis, co-word analysis, author co-citation analysis, document co-citation analysis, and temporal and spatial visualization (Chen, 2017 ). Currently, CiteSpace has been extensively used in more than 60 fields, including computer science, information science, management and medicine (Abad-Segura et al., 2019 ; Chen, 2017 ).

In this paper, we utilize CiteSpace (5.8.R1) to analyze acquired bibliographies of ecotourism to study emerging trends and developments in this field. From macro to micro, from intuitive to complex, from whole to part and from general to special, the writing ideas are adopted. Figure  1 presented the specific research framework of this study.

figure 1

The research framework of this study

2.2 Data collection

Typical sources of scientific literature are Web of Science, Scopus and Google Scholar. Considering the quantity and quality of data, the Web of Science database was expected to provide the original data in this research. In order to comprehend the research status and development trends of ecotourism, this study systematically reviewed the ecotourism literature collected on the Web of Science Core Collection. The Web of Science Core Collection facilitates access to the world’s leading scholarly journals, books and proceedings of conferences in the sciences, social sciences, art, and humanities, as well as access to their entire citation network. It mainly includes Science Citation Index Expanded from 2003 to current and Social Sciences Citation Index from 2004 to present. Therefore, the data obtained in this study are from 2003 and were consulted on June 3, 2021.

In the process of data retrieval, it is frequently confronted with the choice between recall rate and precision rate. To address the problem of low recall rate in keyword or topic retrieval, Chen et al. ( 2014a , b ) expanded the retrieval results through ‘citation expansion’ and ‘comprehensive topic search’ strategies. However, when the recall rate is high, the accuracy rate will decrease correspondingly. In practical standpoint, instead of refining and cleaning up the original search results, a simpler and more efficient way is to cluster or skip these unrelated branches. Priority should be placed on ensuring recall rate, and data integrity is more important than data for accuracy. Therefore, two ecotourism documentation datasets, the core dataset and the expanded dataset, were obtained from the Web of Science by using comprehensive topic search and citation expansion method. The latter approach has been proved more robust than using keyword lists only to define fast-growing areas (Chen et al., 2014b ). A key bibliographic landscape is generated based on the core dataset, followed by more thorough research of the expanded dataset.

2.2.1 The core dataset

The core dataset was derived through comprehensive subject retrieval in Web of Science Core Collection. The literature type was selected as an article or review, and the language was English. The period spans 2003 to 2021. The topic search query is composed of three phrases of ecotourism: ‘ ecotour* ’ OR ‘ eco-tour* ’ OR ‘ ecological NEAR/5 tour* ’. The wildcard * is used to capture related variants of words, for example, ecotour, ecotourism, ecotourist and ecotourists. The related records that are requested include finding these terms in the title, abstract or keywords. The query yielded 2991 original unique records.

2.2.2 The expanded dataset

The expanded dataset includes the core dataset and additional records obtained by reference link association founded on the core dataset. The principle of citation expansion is that if an article cites at least one article in the core dataset, we can infer that it is related to the topic (Garfield, 1955 ). The expanded dataset is comprised of 27,172 unique records, including the core dataset and the articles that cited them. Both datasets were used for the following scientometrics analysis.

3 Bibliographic landscape based on the core dataset

The core dataset consists of a total of 2991 literature from 2003 to 2021. This study utilized the core dataset to conduct an overall understanding of the bibliographic landscape in the field of ecotourism.

3.1 Landscape views of core dataset

The distribution of the yearly publication of bibliographic records in the core and expanded datasets is presented in Fig.  2 . It can be observed that the overall number of ecotourism-related publications is on the rise, indicating that the scholarly community is increasingly interested in ecotourism. After 2018, the growth rate increased substantially. And in 2020, the number of publications in the expanded dataset is close to 5000, almost double that of 2017 and 5 times that of 2011. This displays the rapid development of research in the field of ecotourism in recent years, particularly after 2018, more and more researchers began to pay attention to this field, which also echoes the trend of global tourism development and environmental protection. With the increase in personal income, tourism has grown very rapidly, and with it, tourism revenue and tourist numbers, especially in developing states. For instance, the number of domestic tourists in China increased from 2.641 billion in 2011 to 6.06 billion in 2019, and tourism revenue increased from 1930.5 billion RMB in 2011 to 5725.1 billion RMB in 2019 (MCT, 2021 ). However, due to the lack of effective management and frequent human activities, the rapid development of tourism has led to various ecological and environmental problems, which require corresponding solutions (Shasha et al., 2020 ). This has played an active role in promoting the development of ecotourism and triggered a lot of related research. In addition, since 2005, the expanded dataset has contained numerous times as many references as the core dataset, demonstrating the importance of using citation expansion for literature retrieval in scientometric review studies.

figure 2

The distribution of bibliographic records in core and expanded dataset. Note The data were consulted on June 3, 2021

The data were consulted on June 3, 2021

The dual-map overlay of scientific map literature as Fig.  3 shows, against the background of global scientific map from more than 10,000 journals covered by Web of Science, represents the distribution and connections on research bases and application fields across the entire dataset of the research topics (Chen & Leydesdorff, 2014 ). Colored lines are citation links, and numbered headings are cluster labels. On the left side is the journal distribution which cites literature, regarding the field application of ecotourism, mainly covers multiple disciplines such as 3. Ecology, Earth, Marine, 6. Psychology, Education, Health, 7. Veterinary, Animal Science and 10. Economics, Economic and Political. On the right side is the distribution of journals of cited literature, representing the research basis of ecotourism. As can be observed from the figure, ecotourism research is based on at least five disciplines on the right, including 2. Environmental, Toxicology, Nutrition, 7. Psychology, Education, Social, 8. Molecular, Biology, Genetics, 10. Plant, Ecology, Zoology and 12. Economics, Economic, Political. It can be viewed that the research field of ecotourism spans multiple disciplines and is a comprehensive and complex subject. The dual-map overlay provides a global visualization of literature growth of the discipline level.

figure 3

A dual-map overlay of ecotourism literature

The total number of papers issued by a country or an institution reflects its academic focus and overall strength, while centrality indicates the degree of academic cooperation with others and the influence of published papers. The top 15 countries and institutions for the number of ecotourism papers published from 2003 to 2021 are provided in Table 1 . Similar to the study of Shasha et al. ( 2020 ), the ranking of the top six countries by the number of publications remains unchanged. As can be seen from the table, the USA ranks first in the world, far ahead in both the number of publications and the centrality. China ranks second in global ecotourism publications, followed by Australia, England, South Africa and Canada. While the latest data show that Taiwan (China), Turkey and South Korea appear on the list. Overall, the top 15 countries with the most publications cover five continents, containing a number of developed and developing, which shows that ecotourism research is receiving global attention. In terms of international academic cooperation and impact of ecotourism, Australia and England share second place, Italy and France share fourth place, followed by South Africa and Spain. China’s centrality is relatively low compared to the number of publications, ranking eighth. Academic cooperation between countries is of great significance. Usually, countries with high academic publishing level cooperate closely due to similar research interests. International academic cooperation has enhanced each other’s research capacity and promoted the development of ecotourism research. Therefore, although some countries have entered this list with the publication number, they should attach importance to increase academic cooperation with other countries and improving the international influence of published papers.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences and its university are the most prolific when it draws to institutions’ performance. It is the most important and influential research institute in China, especially in the field of sustainable development science. Australia has four universities on the list, with Griffith University and James Cook University in second and third place. USA also includes four universities, with the University of Florida in fourth place. South Africa, a developing country, gets three universities, with the University of Cape Town and the University of Johannesburg fifth and sixth, respectively. In comparison with previous studies (Shasha et al., 2020 ), Iran and Mexico each have one university in the ranking, replacing two universities in Greece, which means that the importance and influence of developing countries in the field of ecotourism is gradually rising. Based on the above results, it can be summarized that the USA, China, Australia and South Africa are relatively active countries in the field of ecotourism, and their development is also in a relatively leading position.

3.2 Most active topics

The foam tree map and the pie chart of the focal topics of ecotourism based on the core dataset generated by Carrot2 through the title of each article is illustrated in Fig.  4 . Developing and developed, case study, protected areas, sustainable tourism, tourism development and developing ecotourism are leading topics in the field of ecotourism research, as well as specific articles under the main topics. The lightweight view generated by Carrot2 provides a reference for the research, and then, co-word analysis is employed to more specifically reflect the topics in the research field.

figure 4

Foam tree map and pie chart of major topics on ecotourism

The topics covered by ecotourism could be exposed by the keywords of the articles in the core dataset. Figure  5 displays the keywords analysis results generated based on the core dataset. From the visualization results in the figure, it can infer that ecotourism, conservation, tourism, management, protected area, impact, biodiversity, sustainability, national park and community are the ten most concerned topics. Distinct colors set out at the time of co-citation keywords first appear, and yellow is generated earlier than red. In addition, Fig.  5 can also reflect the development and emerging topics in the research field, such as China, Mexico, South Africa and other hot countries for ecotourism research; ecosystem service, economic value, climate change, wildlife tourism, rural tourism, forest, marine protected area and other specific research directions; valuation, contingent valuation, choice experiment and other research methods; willingness to pay, preference, benefit, perception, attitude, satisfaction, experience, behavior, motivation, risk, recreation and other specific research issues.

figure 5

A landscape view of keywords based on the core dataset

4 Emerging trends and developments based on the expanded dataset

The expanded dataset, consisting of 27,172 records, is approximately nine times larger than the core dataset. This research applies the expanded dataset to profoundly explore the emerging trends and developments of ecotourism.

4.1 Keywords with citation bursts

Detection of citation bursts can indicate both the scientific community’s interest in published articles and burst keywords as an indicator of emerging tendencies. Figure  6 displays the top 30 keywords with the strongest citation bursts in the expanded dataset. Since 2003, a large number of keywords have exploded. Among them, the strongest bursts include ecotourism, bird, disturbance, reserve, Africa, challenge, sustainable development and strategy. Keywords with citation burst after 2017 are experience, challenge, sustainable development, willingness to pay, perspective, strategy, quality and satisfaction, which have continued to this day. The results indicate dynamic development and emerging trends in research hotspots in the field of ecotourism.

figure 6

Top 30 keywords with the strongest citation bursts

4.2 References with citation bursts

Figure  7 sets out the top 30 references in the expanded dataset with citation bursts. The articles with the fastest growing citations can also contribute to describe the dynamics of a field. References with high values in strength column are important milestones of ecotourism research. The two articles with strong citation bursts prior to 2010 focused on the human impact on the environment and animals. West et al. ( 2006 ) discussed the relationship between parks and human beings and the social impact of protected areas, and Köndgen et al. ( 2008 ) studied the decline of endangered great apes caused by a human pandemic virus. The paper with the strongest citation burst in the entire expanded dataset was released by Fairhead et al. ( 2012 ), which looked at ‘green grabbing,’ the appropriation of land and resources for environmental purposes. Milcu et al. ( 2013 ) conducted a semi-quantitative review of publications dealing with cultural ecosystem services with the second strongest citation burst, which concluded that the improvement of the evaluation method of cultural ecosystem service value, the research on the value of cultural ecosystem service under the background of ecosystem service and the clarification of policy significance were the new themes of cultural ecosystem service research. In addition, many articles with citation burst discussed the evaluation method of ecosystem services value (Costanza et al., 2014 ; Groot et al., 2010 ), the evaluation of cultural ecosystem service value (Plieninger et al., 2013 ) and its role in ecosystem service evaluation (Chan et al., 2012 ; Chan, Guerry, et al., 2012 ; Chan, Satterfield, et al., 2012 ; Chan, Satterfield, et al., 2012 ; Daniel et al., 2012 ). The most fresh literature with strong citation burst is the article of D’Amato et al. ( 2017 ) published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, which compared and analyzed sustainable development avenues such as green, circular and bio economy. In addition, it is worthwhile noting the use of R in ecotourism, with the persuasive citation burst continuing from 2012 to the present, as indicated by the orange arrow in Fig.  7 .

figure 7

Top 30 references with the strongest citation bursts

4.3 Landscape view of co-citation analysis

The landscape view of co-citation analysis of Fig.  8 is generated based on the expanded dataset. Using g -index ( k  = 25) selection criteria in the latest edition of CiteSpace, an annual citation network was constructed. The final merged network contained 3294 links, 2122 nodes and 262 co-citation clusters. The three largest linked components cover 1748 connected nodes, representing 82% of the entire network. The modularization degree of the synthetic network is 0.8485, which means that co-citation clustering can clearly define each sub-field of ecotourism. Another weighted mean silhouette value of the clustering validity evaluation is 0.9377, indicating that the clustering degree of the network is also very superior. The harmonic mean value amounts to 0.8909.

figure 8

A landscape view of the co-citation network based on the expanded dataset

In the co-citation network view, the location of clusters and the correlation between clusters can show the intellectual structure in the field of ecotourism, so that readers can obtain an overall understanding of this field. The network falls into 25 co-citation clusters. The tags for each cluster are generated founded on the title, keywords and abstract of the cited article. Color-coded areas represent the time of first appeared co-citation links, with gray indicating earlier and red later. The nodes in the figure with red tree rings are references to citation bursts.

4.4 Timeline view

In order to further understand the time horizon and study process of developing evolution on clusters, after the generation of co-citation cluster map, the Y -axis is cluster number and the year of citation publication is X -axis, so as to obtain the timeline view of the co-citation network, shown as Fig.  9 . Clusters are organized vertically from largest to smallest. The color curve represents co-citation link coupled with corresponding color year, with gray representing earlier and red representing newer. Larger nodes and nodes with red tree rings indicate high citation or citation burst. The three most cited references of the year demonstrate below each node, in vertical order from least to most.

figure 9

A timeline visualization of the largest clusters

The timeline view provides a reasonably instinctual and insightful reference to understand the evolutionary path of every subdomain. Figure  9 shows 19 clusters ranging from #0 to #18, with #0 being the largest cluster. As can be seen from the figure, the sustainability and activeness of each cluster are contrasting. For example, the largest cluster has been active since 2006, while the gray and purple clusters are no longer active.

4.5 Major clusters

Taking clustering as a unit and analyzing at the level of clustering, specifically selecting large or new type clustering, is the foothold of co-citation analysis, which can help to understand the principal and latest research fields related to ecotourism. Table 2 displays a summary of the foremost 19 clusters, the first nine of which are all over 100 in size. The silhouette score of all clusters is greater than 0.8, indicating that the homogeneity of each cluster is high. The mean year is the average of the publication dates of references in the cluster. By combining the results in Table 2 , Figs.  8 and 9 , it can be observed that the five largest clusters are #0 cultural ecosystem services, #1 large carnivore, #2 human disturbance, #3 whale shark and #4 ecosystem service. A recent topic is cluster #16 COVID-19 pandemic. #11 Ecological footprint and #14 social media are two relatively youthful fields.

The research status of a research field can be demonstrated by its knowledge base and research frontier. The knowledge base consists of a series of scholarly writing cited by the corresponding article, i.e., cited references, while the research frontier is the writing inspired by the knowledge base, i.e., citing articles. Distinct research frontiers may come from the same knowledge base. Consequently, each cluster is analyzed based on cited references and citing articles. The cited references and citing articles of the five largest clusters are shown in Online Appendix A. Fig a) lists the 15 top cited references with the highest Σ (sigma) value in the cluster, where Σ value indicates that the citation is optimal in terms of the comprehensive performance of structural centrality and citation bursts. Fig b) shows the major citing articles of cluster. The citation behavior of these articles determines the grouping of cited literature and thus forms the cluster. The coverage is the proportion of member citations cited by citing articles.

4.6 Phase evolution research

Through the above analysis of the core dataset and the expanded dataset of ecotourism, we can see the development and evolution of the research field of ecotourism. The research process of ecotourism has gone through several stages, and each stage has its strategic research issues. Research starts with thinking about the relationship between humans and nature, moves to study it as a whole ecosystem, and then explores sustainable development. Hence, the evolution of ecotourism can be roughly parted into three phases.

4.6.1 Phase I: Human disturbance research stage (2003–2010)

This phase of research concentrates on the influence of human activities such as ecotourism on the environment and animals. Representative keywords of this period include ecotourism, human disturbance, response, coral reef, bird, disturbance, recreation, reserve, park, South Africa and people. Representative articles are those published by West et al. ( 2006 ) and Köndgen et al. ( 2008 ) of human impact on the environment and animals. The representative clustering is #2 human disturbance, which is the third largest one, consisting of 130 cited references from 1998 to 2012 with the average year of 2004. This cluster has citation bursts between 2002 and 2010 and has been inactive since then. As showed in Fig S3 a) and b), the research base and frontier are mainly around the impact of human disturbances such as ecotourism on biology and the environment (McClung et al., 2004 ). And as showed in Fig.  8 and Fig.  9 , clusters closely related to #2 belong to this phase and are also no longer active, such as #5 off-road vehicle, #6 protected area, #10 poverty reduction and #12 sustainable lifestyle.

4.6.2 Phase II: Ecosystem services research stage (2011–2015)

In this stage, the content of ecotourism research is diversified and exploded. The research is not confined to the relationship between humans and nature, but begins to investigate it as an entire ecosystem. In addition, some specific or extended areas began to receive attention. Typical keywords are abundance, resource, Africa, risk, predation, consequence and science. The most illustrative papers in this stage are Fairhead et al. ( 2012 )’s discussion on green grabbing and Milcu et al. ( 2013 )’s review on cultural ecosystem services. Other representative papers in this period focused on the evaluation methods of ecosystem service value and the role of cultural ecosystem service in the evaluation of ecosystem service value. Most of the larger clusters in the survey erupted at this stage, including #0 cultural ecosystem services, #1 large carnivore, #3 whale shark, #4 ecosystem services. Some related clusters also belong to this stage, such as #7 neoliberal conservation, #8 responsible behavior, #9 tourism development, #13 mangrove forest, #15 volunteer tourism, #17 circular economy and #18 telecoupling framework.

Cluster #0 cultural ecosystem services are the largest cluster in ecotourism research field, containing 157 cited references from 2006 to 2019, with the mean year being 2012. It commenced to have the citation burst in 2009, with high cited continuing until 2019. Cultural ecosystem services are an essential component of ecosystem services, including spiritual, entertainment and cultural benefits. Thus, in Fig.  8 , the overlap with #4 ecosystem services can obviously be seen. In Cluster #0, many highly cited references have discussed the trade-offs between natural and cultural ecosystem services in ecosystem services (Nelson et al., 2009 ; Raudsepp-Hearne et al., 2010 ) and the important role of cultural ecosystem services in the evaluation of ecosystem services value (Burkhard et al., 2012 ; Chan, Guerry, et al., 2012 ; Chan, Satterfield, et al., 2012 ; Fisher et al., 2009 ; Groot et al., 2010 ). As non-market value, how to evaluate and quantify cultural ecosystem services is also an important issue (Hernández-Morcillo et al., 2012 ; Milcu et al., 2013 ; Plieninger et al., 2013 ). Besides, the exploration of the relationship among biodiversity, human beings and ecosystem services is also the focus of this cluster research (Bennett et al., 2015 ; Cardinale et al., 2012 ; Díaz et al., 2015 ; Mace et al., 2012 ). The citing articles of #0 indicate the continued exploration of the connotation of cultural ecosystem services and their value evaluation methods (Dickinson & Hobbs, 2017 ). It is noteworthy that some articles have introduced spatial geographic models (Havinga et al., 2020 ; Hirons et al., 2016 ) and social media methods (Calcagni et al., 2019 ) as novel methods to examine cultural ecosystem services. In addition, the link and overlap between #0 cultural ecosystem service and #17 circular economy cannot be overlooked.

Ecosystem services relate to all the benefits that humans receive from ecosystems, including supply services, regulatory services, cultural services and support services. Research on cultural ecosystem services is based on the research of ecosystem services. It can be viewed in Fig.  9 that the research and citation burst in #4 was all slightly earlier than #0. Cluster #4 includes 118 references from 2005 to 2019, with an average year of 2011. In its research and development, how to integrate ecosystem services into the market and the payment scheme to protect the natural environment is a significant research topic (Gómez-Baggethun et al., 2010 ). In Cluster #4, the most influential literature provides an overview of the payment of ecosystem services (PES) from theory to practice by Engel et al. ( 2008 ). Many highly cited references have discussed PES (Kosoy & Corbera, 2010 ; Muradian et al., 2010 ), including the effectiveness of evaluation (Naeem et al., 2015 ), social equity matters (Pascual et al., 2014 ), the suitability and challenge (Muradian et al., 2013 ), and how to contribute to saving nature (Redford & Adams, 2009 ). The cluster also includes studies on impact assessment of protected areas (Oldekop et al., 2016 ), protected areas and poverty (Brockington & Wilkie, 2015 ; Ferraro & Hanauer, 2014 ), public perceptions (Bennett, 2016 ; Bennett & Dearden, 2014 ) and forest ecosystem services (Hansen et al., 2013 ). The foremost citing articles confirm the dominant theme of ecosystem services, especially the in-depth study and discussion of PES (Muniz & Cruz, 2015 ). In addition, #4 is highly correlated with #7 neoliberal protection, and Fairhead et al. ( 2012 ), a representative article of this stage, belongs to this cluster.

As the second largest cluster, Cluster #1 contains 131 references from 2008 to 2019, with the median year of 2014. As Fig S2 a) shows, the highly cited literature has mainly studied the status and protection of large carnivores (Mace, 2014 ; Ripple et al., 2014 ), including the situation of reduction (Craigie et al., 2010 ), downgrade (Estes et al., 2011 ) and even extinction (Dirzo et al., 2014 ; Pimm et al., 2014 ), and the reasons for such results, such as tourist visits (Balmford et al., 2015 ; Geffroy et al., 2015 ) and the increase in population at the edge of the protected areas (Wittemyer et al., 2008 ). The conservation effects of protected areas on wildlife biodiversity (Watson et al., 2014 ) and the implications of tourist preference heterogeneity for conservation and management (Minin et al., 2013 ) have also received attention. It is worth noting that the high citation rate of a paper using R to estimate the linear mixed-effects model (Bates et al., 2015 ) and the use of R in this cluster. The relationship between biodiversity and ecotourism is highlighted by the representative citing articles in research frontier of this cluster (Chung et al., 2018 ).

Cluster #3 refers to marine predator, and as shown in Fig.  8 , which has a strong correlation with #1. A total of 125 references were cited from 2002 to 2018, with an average year of 2011. References with high citation in #3 mainly studied the extinction and protection of marine life such as sharks (Dulvy et al., 2014 ), as well as the economic value and ecological impact of shark ecotourism (Clua et al., 2010 ; Gallagher & Hammerschlag, 2011 ; Gallagher et al., 2015 ). The paper published by Gallagher et al. ( 2015 ) is both the highly cited reference and main citing article, mainly focusing on the impact of shark ecotourism. It is also noteworthy that #6 protected area, #13 mangrove forest and #29 Mediterranean areas are highly correlated with these two clusters (Fig.  8 ).

Moreover, some clusters are not highly correlated with other clusters, but cannot be neglected at this stage of research. Cluster #8 responsible behavior includes 107 citations with the average year 2013, and mainly studied environmentally responsible behaviors in ecotourism (Chiu et al., 2014 ). Cluster #9 tourism development contains 97 cited references with mean year of 2015, focusing on the impact of such factors as residents’ perception on tourism development (Sharpley, 2014 ). Cluster #15 volunteer tourism consists of 52 citations, with an average year of 2011, which mainly considers the role of volunteer tourism in tourism development and sustainable tourism (Wearing & McGehee, 2013 ). Cluster #18 telecoupling framework has 26 cited references with the mean year being 2015, and the application of the new integrated framework of telecoupling Footnote 1 in ecotourism can be seen (Liu et al., 2015 ).

At this stage, it can be seen that the research field of ecotourism begins to develop in the direction of diversification, including the value evaluation and related research of ecosystem services and cultural ecosystem services, as well as the exploration of wild animals and plants, marine animals and plants and biodiversity. Neoliberal conservation, tourists’ responsible behavior, tourism development, volunteer tourism and circular economy are all explored. Some new research methods have also brought fresh air to this field, such as the introduction of spatial geographic models and social media methods, the discussion of economic value evaluation methods, the widespread use of R and the exploration of telecoupling framework. Therefore, from this stage, research in the field of ecotourism has entered the second stage of scientific discipline development (Shneider, 2009 ), featured by the use and evolution of research tools that can be used to investigate potential phenomena.

4.6.3 Phase III: Sustainable development research stage (2016 to present)

This stage of research continues to explore a series of topics of the preceding phase and further extends the research field on this basis. The keywords at this stage are politics, marine protected area and valuation. Some other keywords are still very active today, such as experience, challenge, sustainable development, willingness to pay, perspective, strategy, quality and satisfaction. The representative article is about sustainable development published by D'Amato et al. ( 2017 ), as shown in Fig.  8 belonging to #17 circular economy. The emerging clusters in this period are #11 ecological footprint, #14 social media and #16 COVID-19 pandemic. Cluster #11 contains 70 cited references from 2013 to 2020 with the mean year 2017. This clustering study mainly used the ecological footprint as an environmental indicator and socioeconomic indicators such as tourism to investigate the hypothesis of environmental Kuznets curve (Ozturk et al., 2016 ; Ulucak & Bilgili, 2018 ). Cluster #14 includes 52 cited references, with an average year of 2016. It can be seen that the introduction of social media data has added new color to research in the field of ecotourism, such as using social media data to quantify landscape value (Zanten et al., 2016 ) and to understand tourists’ preferences for the experience of protected areas (Hausmann et al., 2018 ), as well as from a spatial perspective using social media geo-tagged photos as indicators for evaluating cultural ecosystem services (Richards & Friess, 2015 ). As the latest and most concerned topic, cluster #16 contains 48 cited references, with mean year of 2018. This cluster mainly cites research on over-tourism (Seraphin et al., 2018 ) and sustainable tourism (Higgins-Desbiolles, 2018 ) and explores the impact of pandemics such as COVID-19 on global tourism (Gössling et al., 2021 ).

These emerging clusters at this phase bring fresh thinking to the research of ecotourism. First of all, the analysis of ecological footprint provides a tool for measuring the degree of sustainability and helps to monitor the effectiveness of sustainable programs (Kharrazi et al., 2014 ). Research and exploration of ecological footprint in ecotourism expresses the idea of sustainable development and puts forward reasonable planning and suggestions by comparing the demand of ecological footprint with the carrying capacity of natural ecosystem. Secondly, the use of social media data brings a new perspective of data acquisition to ecotourism research. Such large-scale data acquisition can make up for the limitations of sample size and data sampling bias faced by survey data users and provide a new way to understand and explore tourist behavior and market (Li et al., 2018 ). Finally, the sudden impact of COVID-19 in 2020 and its long-term sustainability has dealt a huge blow to the tourism industry. COVID-19 has highlighted the great need and value of tourism, while fundamentally changing the way destinations, business and visitors plan, manage and experience tourism (CREST, 2020 ). However, the stagnation of tourism caused by the pandemic is not enough to meet the challenges posed by the environment and the climate crisis. Therefore, how to sustain the development of tourism in this context to meet the challenges of the environment and climate change remains an important issue in the coming period of time. These emerging clusters are pushing the boundaries of ecotourism research and the exploration of sustainable development in terms of research methods, data collection and emerging topics.

Despite the fact that the research topics in this stage are richer and more diversified, the core goal of research is still committed to the sustainable development of ecotourism. The introduction of new technologies and the productive results have led to a much-improved understanding of research issues. All this commemorates the entrance of research into the third stage of the development of scientific disciplines (Shneider, 2009 ). In addition to continuing the current research topics, the future development of the field of ecotourism will continue to focus on the goal of sustainable development and will be more diversified and interdisciplinary.

5 Conclusion

This paper uses scientometrics to make a comprehensive visual domain analysis of ecotourism. The aim is to take advantage of this method to conduct an in-depth systematic review of research and development in the field of ecotourism. We have enriched the process of systematic reviews of knowledge domains with features from the latest CiteSpace software. Compared with previous studies, this study not only updated the database, but also extended the dataset with citation expansion, so as to more comprehensively identify the rapidly developing research field. The research not only identifies the main clusters and their advance in ecotourism research based on high impact citations and research frontiers formed by citations, but also presents readers with new insights through intuitive visual images. Through this study, readers can swiftly understand the progress of ecotourism, and on the basis of this study, they can use this method to conduct in-depth analysis of the field they are interested in.

Our research shows that ecotourism has developed rapidly in recent years, with the number of published articles increasing year by year, and this trend has become more pronounced after 2018. The research field of ecotourism spans many disciplines and is a comprehensive interdisciplinary subject. Ecotourism also attracts the attention of numerous developed and developing countries and institutions. The USA, China, Australia and South Africa are in a relatively leading position in the research and development of ecotourism. Foam tree map and pie chart of major topics, and the landscape view of keywords provide the hotspot issues of the research field. The development trend of ecotourism is preliminarily understood by detecting the citation bursts of the keywords and published articles. Co-citation analysis generates the main clusters of ecotourism research, and the timeline visualization of these clusters provides a clearer view for understanding the development dynamics of the research field. Building on all the above results, the research and development of ecotourism can be roughly divided into three stages: human disturbance, ecosystem services and sustainable development. Through the study of keywords, representative literature and main clusters in each stage, the development characteristics and context of each stage are clarified. From the current research results, we can catch sight that the application of methods and software in ecotourism research and the development of cross-field. Supported by the Shneider’s four-stage theory of scientific discipline (Shneider, 2009 ), it can be thought that ecotourism is in the third stage. Research tools and methods have become more potent and convenient, and research perspectives have become more diverse.

Based on the overall situation, research hotspots and development tendency of ecotourism research, it can be seen that the sustainable development of ecotourism is the core issue of current ecotourism research and also an important goal for future development. In the context of the current pandemic, the tourism industry is in crisis, but crisis often breeds innovation, and we must take time to reconsider the way forward. As we look forward to the future of tourism, we must adopt the rigor and dedication required to adapt to the pandemic, adhering to the principles of sustainable development while emphasizing economic reliability, environmental suitability and cultural acceptance. Post-COVID, the competitive landscape of travel and tourism will change profoundly, with preventive and effective risk management, adaptation and resilience, and decarbonization laying the foundation for future competitiveness and relevance (CREST, 2020 ).

In addition, as can be seen from the research and development of ecotourism, the exploration of sustainable development increasingly needs to absorb research methods from diverse fields to guide the formulation of policy. First of all, how to evaluate and quantify ecotourism reasonably and scientifically is an essential problem to be solved in the development of ecotourism. Some scholars choose contingent valuation method (CVM) and choice experiment (CE) in environmental economics to evaluate the economic value of ecotourism, especially non-market value. In addition, the introduction of spatial econometrics and the use of geographic information system (GIS) provide spatial scale analysis methods and results presentation for the sustainable development of ecotourism. The use of social media data implies the application of big data technology in the field of ecotourism, where machine learning methods such as artificial neural networks (ANN) and linear discriminant analysis (LDA) are increasingly being applied (Talebi et al., 2021 ). The measurement of ecological footprint and the use of telecoupling framework provide a reliable way to measure sustainable development and the interaction between multiple systems. These approaches all have expanded the methodological boundaries of ecotourism research. It is worth noting that R, as an open source and powerful software, is favored by scholars in the field of ecotourism. This programming language for statistical computation is now widely used in statistical analysis, data mining, data processing and mapping of ecotourism research.

The scientometrics method used in this study is mainly guided by the citation model in the literature retrieval dataset. The range of data retrieval exercises restraint by the source of retrieval and the query method utilized. While current methods can meet the requirements, iterative query optimization can also serve to advance in the quality of the data. To achieve higher data accuracy, the concept tree function in the new version of CiteSpace can also serve to clarify the research content of each clustering (Chen, 2017 ). In addition, the structural variation analysis in the new edition is also an interesting study, which can show the citation footprints of typical high-yielding authors and judge the influence of the author on the variability of network structure through the analysis of the citation footprints (Chen, 2017 ).

Availability of data and material

The data that support the findings of this study are available from Web of Science.

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Acknowledgements

This study is funded by Education Department of Heilongjiang Province (1451MSYYB013) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No.71874026 and No.71171044).

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Department of Management Science and Engineering, Northeast Agricultural University, Harbin, 150030, China

Lishan Xu, Changlin Ao, Baoqi Liu & Zhenyu Cai

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In this study, LX proposed the research topic, designed the research methodology and framework, and made the data analysis. She was the major contributor in writing the manuscript. CA contributed to the design of the whole paper, including the research topic and methodology, and also participated in the writing and revision of the manuscript. BL and ZC were involved in data collection and analysis. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Xu, L., Ao, C., Liu, B. et al. Ecotourism and sustainable development: a scientometric review of global research trends. Environ Dev Sustain 25 , 2977–3003 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-022-02190-0

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Received : 29 October 2021

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Issue Date : April 2023

DOI : https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-022-02190-0

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