THE lights are going off, the swallows have left, the coffee shops and restaurants are closing, seasonal staff return to “civilisation”, and the islands are preparing for winter.

“People seem to think we’re a ­pop-up summer community,” someone said to me recently, in the aftermath of a particularly annoying conversation based on “whatever do you do in the winter?”

The sad thing is that the “pop-up summer community” is increasingly ­becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in all too many island and Highland ­destinations.

Running a hospitality business in the ­islands with additional freight costs, and ­often having to provide staff accommodation, means margins are tight. The small resident populations can’t drink enough coffee and eat enough cake to make it worth a cafe switching the heating on through the winter, especially given the current prices of electricity and heating oil. Tours, watersports, boat trips, hiking and other outdoor events only really appeal to the masses when the weather is fine.

Many businesses rely on a short ­summer season being enough to keep them afloat through the winter. And that works when times are good and travel is easy, when people have spare cash and when the economy is inspiring confidence.

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It’s a different story when the ferries are falling to bits, the cost of living is off the charts and renting self-catering ­property in some of our beauty spots costs the same as a round trip to Australia, or a nice safari.

Businesses in the islands have been counting the cost of that downturn this summer. Anecdotally, people have been here, but spending a lot less. They are mainly eating in their accommodation, maybe venturing out for a meal once.

They have been less likely to spend on the bigger things, like a tour, a week of ­watersports lessons or a day on a boat trip. The ­ferry debacle seems to have put off many younger families and ­professionals, all of whom need to know they will be home for a specific date and time. And who can blame those who ­decided not to travel for fear of being turned back at the port due to a breakdown?

Maybe things will pick up next season, maybe they won’t. How will the short-term letting (STL) rules affect the market? Have hundreds of property owners in Skye all thrown in the towel over the ­paperwork, or have they, like many in the Western Isles, applied at the last ­minute? We don’t know – and that’s the real ­challenge. How can communities prepare for something they cannot predict, and over which they have very little control? That is entirely unsustainable.

“Sustainable” is a word which is very much in vogue. Everything has to be ­sustainable, we’re told. Crofting must be sustainable, economies must be ­sustainable, business must be ­sustainable. The phrase “Sustainable Tourism” is ­being bandied about with ­increasing ­regularity. Could that be a ­solution ­facing the ­economies of our tourist ­destinations? Well, that depends entirely on the ­definition of sustainable, and the focus of that sustainability.

Sustainable tourism is defined by the UN Environment Programme and UN World Tourism Organisation as “tourism that takes full account of its current and ­future economic, social and ­environmental ­impacts, addressing the needs of visitors, the industry, the environment and host communities”.

The National: The CalMac ferry 'Hebrides' leaving Uig on Skye heading for Lochmaddy on North Uist..

Additionally, they say that sustainable tourism “refers to the environmental, ­economic and socio-cultural aspects of tourism development, and a suitable ­balance must be established between these three dimensions to guarantee its long-term sustainability”.

Interestingly, that definition from the UN puts host communities at the end of the list. Socio-cultural aspects are also last. The ordering might be unintentional, but it certainly rings true when we survey the current landscape in Scotland.

When was the last time you saw ­tourist literature from official bodies ­featuring Gaelic or focusing on traditions and ­history, beyond the obligatory ruins? Too often, we are hearing from ­communities who feel disenfranchised and powerless in the face of Tourism with a capital “T”.

When you combine the challenges ­facing resident rural communities and the need to ensure that we don’t lose our tourism economies entirely, the need has never been greater to pin down what ­sustainable tourism actually means in the context of the Islands and Highlands.

It’s an enormous topic, but with the ­recent gnashing of teeth over the STL ­regulations, tourist accommodation seems like a good place to start. Let’s make that sustainable.

How do we make self-catering sustainable, you might ask? Well, we need to start being bold and brave in our decisions. Let’s take Tiree as an example. Only 16% of our holiday accommodation is owned by an island resident. There are 100 properties publicly listed (well, there were before the STL deadline). The average price for a week in self-catering is £900. The season is about 20 weeks, give or take. A quick calculation gives me £1.5 million which leaves Tiree annually and goes into pockets elsewhere in the country. Now multiply that across the Highlands and Islands.

There are a lot of assumptions in that ­calculation, including maximum ­occupancy, but it makes the point. ­Accommodation is the single biggest ­earner in the tourist economy, and ­certainly in the case of Tiree, it is almost entirely extractive. That amount of money staying in the community each year would be a game-changer.

In Tiree, we also have a “Croft ­Camping” scheme. Every campervan or caravan has to book a spot before they arrive. They are met off the boat by the Ranger who gives them an information pack and clear directions to their site, and to waste disposal. They pay per night, and the majority of the fee goes to the crofter whose land it is. It is a model which works incredibly well. So, let’s take it a step further.

What if residents were incentivised to buy into community-owned ­holiday ­accommodation of some sort? If a ­community organisation was the one offering accommodation, or at the very least, taking bookings and processing ­payments for properties, they would have the ­contact details for visitors, ­meaning that valuable information could be ­disseminated before they arrived. Key information that is invaluable in rural contexts, like phone signal, emergency service contacts, ATMs, ­public toilets, dog etiquette and how to use ­passing places could all be communicated before they left home. Charging a tourist tax at a community level would be much more straightforward.

Once you have the ability to contact people, then you can make recommendations and suggest places to go. With apps and other technology, a community could curate the experience even further – including historical and cultural information.

Responsible travellers would be ­delighted with such a rich offer. ­Responsible tourism is defined as ­travelling without causing any ­negative social, economic or environmental ­impacts on the places you visit. That market is large, and the trend is growing.

If all the short-term let owners who threatened to walk away have, fine – let’s call their bluff. Triple the council tax on ­second homes, get the ­National Islands Plan to include a promise to support ­community-owned tourist ­accommodation, force all STLs to use a community booking ­platform, and let’s start controlling our own narrative at a ­hyper-local level using the technology available to us.

A strong, community-owned tourist economy can only offer benefits – and the benefits of community-owned accommodation would cascade through the rest of the year. That would be a good step on the road to sustainability.