HERE in the islands, the swallows are back, the grass is growing and the wildflowers aren’t far off. The corncrakes are calling and the cuckoo is in excellent voice – more’s the pity for those of us who like to sleep with the window open. I’ll need to get the cats on it.

As the landscape wakes from its ­winter hibernations, the same can’t be said of the business environment. Based on the patterns of recent years, the tourists would normally be pouring off the boat here but anecdotal reports ­continue to report a much quieter season.

Added to the general downturn, the end of the post-Covid bump, and the ongoing ­reality that a lot of people are skint, there appears to be an unintended consequence of a ferry-booking pilot for Coll and Tiree.

The goal of the pilot was to make it easier for last-minute travel. It has worked ­brilliantly for me and for folks I know. The booking system is set to hold back deck space until a week before the boat sails.

There’s always a kicker though. In this instance, it is rumoured that no-one ­remembered that the mezzanine deck isn’t triggered on the booking system until the boat reaches a certain level of capacity … Add to that block booking for commercial vehicles which may or may not travel and boats showing as stuffed to the gunwales on the system have been departing with plenty of space on the car deck.

On the upside … I guess that’s one way to address questions which are being asked about the environmental impacts of tourism across the Highlands and ­Islands – and the last seven days raised a lot of questions.

READ MORE: Rhoda Meek: Hebrides and Canary Islands face same tourist dilemma

In the same week as serious concerns were raised about the effects of climate change on the St Kilda archipelago, ­photos emerged of a cruise ship off Hirta merrily belching enough smoke to give an entire island of multi-fuel stoves a run for their money.

It was hard to imagine ­anything that would dwarf the rugged presence of that group of islands, but it turns out all we needed was a floating hotel.

Those reports were followed up by a Stornoway Gazette piece about the ­increase in E. coli levels in the waters around Harris fueled in part, it is claimed, by the proliferation of holiday houses which may or may not be adhering to the correct septic tank rules.

The waters off Seilebost and Luskentyre beaches – the doyens of many a publication – have been rated a C, with a former fisheries officer stating that they most certainly wouldn’t be going for a dip. It makes the annual dumping of campervan sewage by an idiot driver look like a minor indiscretion.

Simultaneously, it was announced that a holiday home in Harris had won a UK-wide award for the best sustainable building project. It’s described as having “outstanding eco-credentials and design features” and was applauded by judges for its consideration of the local ­environment.

Which is lovely, but I’ll put money on it that those who can afford a stay will ­arrive in a Range Rover.

Speaking of transport, the ­Independent ran a piece last week on how easy it is to navigate Scottish islands by bike and public transport. Which is the cue for ­islanders to cackle hysterically.

The ­premise might hold water for smaller ­islands closer to the mainland, but unless you are a diehard cyclist or don’t mind organising your entire break around our generally ad hoc bus timetables, it’s a bit of a pipedream.

Argyll and Bute Council took the ­retirement of a bus operator to simply nuke the Ring and Ride service in Tiree. In their commentary, they had no qualms about focusing on the operator, rather than addressing the ongoing reduction in budgets and the rise in fuel prices.

Tiree isn’t alone. Barra’s bus budget was slashed just a few weeks ago. ­Suggesting that there is an appetite at a council ­level to support bus services would make ­a corncrake laugh.

As a counterpoint to the ­bikes-as-saviours discourse, Shetland is having a minor meltdown over the large groups ­disembarking cruise ships and ­setting off for a cycling tour. Large cruise ships disgorging cyclists to clog up the roads is such an exquisite mess that it perfectly illustrates the tensions facing anyone attempting to answer the “what is environmentally sustainable tourism” question.

To recap, as global warming begins to bite even in what could fairly be described as a “remote” archipelago, we have cruise ships belching pollution. Far from asking ourselves serious questions about that, we are actively trying to entice them.

They may or may not disgorge passengers, who may or may not spend money locally but will probably cause some serious form of two-wheeled traffic jam in their doomed effort to be environmentally friendly. Many cruise ships bring their own bikes, so we can’t even argue that local businesses benefit from rental.

Tourists are encouraged to use public transport, which is, at best, as reliable as CalMac’s overhaul schedule or booking system, but investment in bus travel is as rare as hen’s teeth.

Expensive holiday homes built by ­non-residents in an eco-friendly way are hailed as a wonderful thing but are ­utterly irrelevant to the ongoing challenges – which for shits and giggles now includes E. coli.

And that’s before we try to break down who should be responsible for bins and parking and toilet facilities, which remain an ongoing bone of contention in almost every scenic location.

If our government and councils can’t work out the ­number of bins needed or understand that where there are people there are cars and ­bladders and then fund things appropriately, I’m not holding out much hope that we’ll solve the larger, existential issues.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government is celebrating the fact that foreign visitors are up 15% since before the pandemic and the powers that be continue to churn out images of pristine beaches, rugged landscapes, and serene beauty.

Escape to the untouched ­wilderness of Arran, they cry! Relax on the ­undiscovered Isle of Skye!

No-one is clearer than those of us who live in them that the relationship ­between beautiful places and tourism is complicated. It’s needed and frustrating all at the same time.

The vast majority of individuals do their best to be respectful – and we are grateful for it – but individual action isn’t going to solve the problem any more than paper straws will dissolve the great Pacific garbage patch.

READ MORE: People who ‘love’ islands are killing them with this housing crisis

So how do we solve the problem? ­Certainly not by punting the problem back to communities, offering them a meagre amount of money to make a ­sustainable tourism action plan and ­giving them no follow-up funding to make the plan a ­reality.

Why should local communities be ­expected to solve the infrastructure ­issues that are not of their making – and fund it into the bargain?

Progress could be made if the ­Government committed to funnelling ­future tourist taxes and additional ­Council Tax on second homes back into the communities where the revenue was earned. Councils should be legally obliged to ­ensure income generated by Lismore is not spent on lampposts in Lochgilphead.

As always, it needs the creative joined-up thinking so sadly lacking in ­almost ­every area of public life. It needs a ­willingness to engage with affected ­communities, to listen to them, and to fund them ­appropriately. Which is about as likely as a cruise ship on the Clisham.