Europe's Voice of Tourism

Transforming Tourism: Energy Efficiency for Big Savings and Sales

Improving energy efficiency in the buildings of the European tourism industry is crucial for reducing environmental impact and operating costs.

This article examines the required investments, relevant EU regulations and financing options, the specific challenges faced by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in holiday destinations, strategies for SMEs to overcome these challenges, and the potential marketing and sales returns from investing in energy efficiency.

The Importance of Energy Efficiency

The buildings sector accounts for approximately 40% of the EU’s total energy consumption and 36% of CO2 emissions. The tourism industry, with its extensive infrastructure of hotels, resorts, and other accommodations, contributes significantly to this total. Enhancing energy efficiency in these buildings can lead to substantial reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, aligning with the EU’s broader climate goals.

Required Investments

Investing in energy efficiency improvements involves various measures, including:

  1. Building Envelope Improvements: Upgrading insulation, windows, and doors to reduce heat loss.
  2. Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) Systems: Installing high-efficiency systems and optimizing existing ones.
  3. Lighting: Switching to LED lighting and implementing smart lighting systems.
  4. Renewable Energy Integration: Installing solar panels, geothermal systems, and other renewable energy sources.
  5. Energy Management Systems: Deploying advanced energy management systems for monitoring and optimizing energy use.

The European Commission estimates that achieving the energy efficiency targets will require investments of around €275 billion annually. For the tourism sector, this translates into substantial but necessary expenditures, given the long-term savings and environmental benefits.

Relevant EU Regulations and Financing

The EU has established a comprehensive regulatory framework to promote energy efficiency, including:

  1. Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD): This directive mandates that all new buildings must be nearly zero-energy buildings (NZEB) by 2025. It also requires regular energy performance certifications and encourages the renovation of existing buildings.
  2. Energy Efficiency Directive (EED): This directive sets binding measures to help the EU reach its 20% energy efficiency target by 2025 and its 32.5% target by 2030.
  3. Renovation Wave Initiative: Launched as part of the European Green Deal, this initiative aims to at least double the annual energy renovation rate of buildings by 2030.

To support these initiatives, the EU offers various financing mechanisms:

  1. European Regional Development Fund (ERDF): Provides grants for energy efficiency projects, particularly in less developed regions.
  2. Cohesion Fund: Supports member states with a per capita Gross National Income (GNI) less than 90% of the EU average, financing projects that improve energy efficiency.
  3. Horizon Europe: Funds research and innovation projects, including those focused on energy efficiency in buildings.
  4. European Investment Bank (EIB): Offers loans and other financial products to support energy efficiency investments.

Challenges for SMEs in Holiday Destinations

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in holiday destinations face unique challenges in improving energy efficiency:

  1. High Upfront Costs: The initial investment for energy efficiency upgrades can be prohibitive for SMEs with limited financial resources. For example, retrofitting an existing hotel with energy-efficient systems can cost upwards of €250,000, depending on the size and current condition of the building.
  2. Access to Financing: SMEs often struggle to secure financing due to a lack of credit history or collateral. According to the European Investment Bank, 50% of SMEs cite financing as a major barrier to implementing energy efficiency measures.
  3. Knowledge and Expertise: Many SMEs lack the technical expertise to identify and implement energy efficiency measures effectively. A survey by the European Commission found that only 30% of SMEs have access to sufficient technical knowledge to undertake such projects.
  4. Disruption to Operations: Renovation and upgrade projects can disrupt business operations, affecting revenue and customer satisfaction. For instance, major renovations might require parts of the hotel to be closed temporarily, leading to a potential loss in bookings.

Strategies for SMEs to Overcome Challenges

To overcome these challenges, SMEs can adopt several strategies:

  1. Leverage EU and National Funding: SMEs should actively seek out EU grants and subsidies, such as those offered by the ERDF and the Cohesion Fund. National governments also often provide additional incentives for energy efficiency projects.
  2. Form Partnerships: SMEs can form partnerships with larger companies, local governments, and financial institutions to share resources and expertise. These partnerships can also help in securing financing and technical support.
  3. Incremental Upgrades: Rather than undertaking comprehensive renovations, SMEs can implement energy efficiency measures incrementally. This approach allows for spreading out the costs and minimizing disruption to operations.
  4. Training and Education: Investing in staff training and education on energy efficiency can build internal expertise. This knowledge can help SMEs identify cost-effective measures and optimize energy use.
  5. Energy Audits: Conducting regular energy audits can help SMEs identify areas for improvement and track the effectiveness of implemented measures.
  6. Third-Party Certification: Obtaining certifications from recognized environmental organizations can enhance credibility and attract eco-conscious customers.

Return on Investment

Investing in energy efficiency can yield significant returns, both financially and environmentally. Here are some estimates of ROI for different energy efficiency measures:

  1. Building Envelope Improvements: Typically, ROI can range from 5% to 15% annually. Insulation upgrades can reduce energy consumption by up to 40%, leading to significant cost savings.
  2. HVAC Systems: ROI for high-efficiency HVAC systems can be between 10% and 20% annually, with energy savings of up to 30%.
  3. Lighting: Switching to LED lighting can offer an ROI of 20% to 30% annually. LED lights consume up to 80% less energy and last 25 times longer than traditional incandescent bulbs.
  4. Renewable Energy Integration: Solar panels can have an ROI of 5% to 10% annually, with payback periods ranging from 7 to 15 years. Geothermal systems can offer similar returns, though initial costs are higher.

Marketing and Sales Return

Investing in energy efficiency can significantly enhance marketing and sales for tourism businesses. Here’s how:

  1. Enhanced Reputation: Demonstrating a commitment to sustainability can improve a company’s reputation and brand image. Eco-friendly certifications and visible energy-saving measures can attract environmentally conscious travellers.
  2. Increased Customer Loyalty: Guests increasingly prefer to stay in eco-friendly accommodations. A 2020 survey found that 82% of travellers identified sustainable travel as important. Offering energy-efficient accommodations can enhance customer loyalty and repeat business.
  3. Premium Pricing: Energy-efficient buildings can command higher prices due to their sustainable features. Guests are often willing to pay a premium for environmentally friendly accommodations.
  4. Competitive Advantage: SMEs that invest in energy efficiency can differentiate themselves from competitors. This competitive edge can be crucial in attracting both leisure and business travellers.
  5. Positive Reviews and Word of Mouth: Sustainable practices can lead to positive reviews and recommendations, both online and offline, driving more bookings and higher occupancy rates.

Examples of Eco-Friendly Initiatives

Several initiatives and companies are leading the way in enhancing energy efficiency in the tourism sector:

  1. TUI Group: Invested in energy-efficient upgrades across its hotel portfolio, resulting in significant reductions in energy consumption and CO2 emissions.
  2. Scandic Hotels: Implemented a comprehensive energy management system, achieving substantial energy savings and becoming a leader in sustainable hospitality.
  3. Small Hotels in the Algarve, Portugal: Participated in local government and EU-funded programs to retrofit buildings with energy-efficient technologies, significantly reducing their environmental footprint.
  4. Accor Hotels: Accor has launched the Planet 21 program, aiming to reduce energy consumption by 25% across its properties by 2025 through various efficiency measures and renewable energy projects.
  5. Hostelling International: Many of their hostels have implemented energy-efficient practices, including solar panels and energy-efficient heating systems.

Green-Washing and Genuine Sustainability

Green-washing, the practice of making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service, is a significant issue in the tourism industry. Companies might exaggerate or fabricate their sustainability efforts to attract environmentally conscious consumers without making substantial changes to their operations. This practice undermines genuine efforts to mitigate climate change and can lead to consumer distrust.

To combat green-washing, it is essential to focus on verified and measurable sustainability initiatives. Certifications from recognized environmental organizations, transparent reporting, and adherence to stringent environmental standards are indicators of genuine sustainability efforts.


Improving the energy efficiency of buildings in the European tourism industry is essential for achieving sustainability goals. While the required investments are substantial, the long-term benefits in terms of cost savings, reduced environmental impact, and enhanced marketability are significant. EU regulations and financing options provide crucial support, but SMEs in holiday destinations need tailored assistance to overcome their unique challenges. By embracing energy efficiency, the tourism sector can play a pivotal role in the EU’s transition to a low-carbon economy.

Only through genuine sustainability efforts, devoid of green-washing, can the tourism industry make meaningful strides towards mitigating its environmental impact and contributing to a more sustainable future.

United Nations • Climate change refers to long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Human activities have been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas.