First impressions are vital.

For tourist destinations they mean the difference between visitors stopping, or moving on somewhere more attractive. Ever since the bypass severed the centre of Fort William from the shores of Loch Linnhe, 40 years ago, potential visitors have been greeted by the ugly back walls of shops and hotels. Many have taken one look and headed straight to Mallaig or Inverness.

It is hardly surprising that a local councillor wants the buildings to be painted in a rainbow palette to persuade drivers to turn into town. It has worked for Tobermory, not least because the bright harbourside houses inspired Balamory, the TV hit for toddlers, which prompted families to go on location.

Fort William needs a more radical solution. It is worth further examination because it is such a typical (and instructive) example of Scotland's bi-polar attitude to tourism. Like so many Highland stopping-off points it owes its place in the visitors' guides to Queen Victoria, who spent a week at Inverlochy Castle in 1873. The public followed in her footsteps when the West Highland Railway opened in 1894, making the Fort a vital connection between steamers to Oban and the islands and trains to Glasgow and Inverness. Businesses of all sorts thrived. Hydro power made Fort William the first town in Britain to be lit by electricity and in the 1920s powered an aluminium smelter. In the 1960s a pulp and paper mill brought new jobs and an increase in population.

Visitors to this working town were increasingly walkers and climbers drawn to Ben Nevis and the surrounding hills. That has led to an astute expansion of facilities for other outdoor sports. The gondola that carries skiers up Aonach Mor operates in summer to provide access to a network of tracks for downhill races for some of Britain's best mountain bikers and Fort William markets itself as the outdoor capital of the UK.

It is a successful example of building on unique local assets to cater for a specialist demand. But many local people whose businesses depend on tourism are frustrated because other visitors are disappointed by Fort William. One of those is Norrie MacLean. He makes a point of asking visitors to his guest house for their impressions and says many are mystified that a town set between a sea loch and snow-capped mountains fails to capitalise on its stunning situation.

Instead of complaining, he has taken action. With five friends he formed a charity to clean up the beach round the Old Fort, moved 5000 tonnes of sand from the other side of the pier and provided benches and a grassy area to make an attractive viewpoint.

Ideally, he would like this to be the first step in a much more ambitious plan, to build a breakwater and marina with a lighthouse providing a viewing platform and picnic pods built out into the Loch Linnhe. He believes this would provide the sea link the town has lost, enabling passengers from coastal cruise ships to land as well as providing moorings for yachts and a stopover for sailors wanting to journey on through the Caledonian Canal. Much of the infrastructure is already there and the required additions would be a link with history rather than an unrelated piece of modernism.

A previous £80m scheme to transform the waterfront anchored by a new Tesco store was abandoned. That is cause for celebration; a retail park would have been further desecration of the classic west Highland setting. The supermarket, however, is now building on a new site at Blar Mhor, which will provide shopping facilities for around 5000 people in the Corpach area.

In considering the difference between the desirable and the do-able, it is worth remembering that the latter need not be second best. This would appear to be the case with the MacLean plan for Fort William. It has been welcomed by a the town's steering group which intends to lobby Highland Council. They should be led by local opinion. It's a classic case of those at the grassroots knowing best.