COMMUNITY activists who have brought a major boost to Lochaber’s tourist industry are hunting for funding to complete their waterfront transformation of Fort William.

A huge extension to the docking facility they created last year will allow thousands more sea-borne visitors and even air passengers to travel directly to the West Highland town.

Their plan for the extension of the pontoons – which allow cruise ships to bring passengers ashore – has just won its marine licence, the permission needed for off-shore structures. It is the latest step by the activists, after obtaining planning permission, on the way to achieving their dream.

Now they are hoping to raise £805,000 to fund the extension, which is eight times as long as the present 24m pontoon, and will be seeking funds from the area’s big firms, Highlands and Island Enterprise, and others.

With £185,000 spent on the initial two pontoons, it will bring the total spend on the project to almost £1m.

The extension will provide 14 berths for yachts, motor cruisers and facilities for the Loch Lomond Seaplanes service. The air company is hoping to restart scheduled services to Fort William when the new pontoons are in place.

It will mean easier access for tourists to major attractions such as Ben Nevis, the Harry Potter railway trip to Mallaig, and the magnificent scenery of Glencoe.

The original pontoons, completed last year, were the brainchild of a group of local volunteers who created the Fort William Marina and Shoreline Company (FWMSC) to tackle the project.

FWMSC director Hamish Loudon said: “We are delighted to receive the marine licence for the extension to the Fort William Pontoons.

“This is bringing us closer to achieving the next phase in our plans for a short-term berthing facility in the town. This will allow marine visitors to sail up stunning Loch Linnhe, enjoy our beautiful location and help boost the local economy.

“We are now looking for funding to make this extension a reality and continuing the next step towards the regeneration of the waterfront in Fort William.”

The project to install the first two pontoons was completed in May 2016. With a bridge to the shore and a shelter, it provides safe passage for the public. It was opened in September 2016 by Fiona Hyslop MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs.

As a result Fort William has to date welcomed nine cruise ships carrying 6,000 passengers and 3,000 crew.

At least half the passengers have taken half-day trips, benefitting attractions in Lochaber such as the Nevis Range ski area, the steam-train service to Mallaig featured in the Harry Potter films, as well as Glencoe, the Ben Nevis Distillery, and local travel firm Shiel Buses. With events such as country dancing, piping and geology talks put on by volunteers there has been a measurable impact, with increases of between five per cent and 100 per cent in turnover in High Street shops when ships have been in port.

The volunteers say the extension will be the key economic driver for the regeneration of Fort William and will bring sustainable development to the whole of Lochaber.

Local SNP MSP Kate Forbes said: “I am absolutely delighted that the marine licence has been granted for the extension of the pontoons.

“I have joined the volunteers of the Fort William Marina and Shoreline Company to welcome cruise ships and I know how much work goes in to maintaining and cleaning [the pontoon] and welcoming passengers.

“They deserve the highest praise and I’m so pleased that this licence will enable them to start the second phase. There is clearly demand for the pontoons.”