A slice of Northland coastal paradise could be headed for the open market after the Department of Conservation turned down the chance to buy it.

Elliot Bay, 30km east of Russell in the Bay of Islands, has been a popular camping and surfing hidey-hole for decades. Owned by 75-year-old John Elliot, the 720ha farm backs on to the family's private beach.

Holidaymakers have been crossing the family's land to pitch tents at the isolated bay for more than 60 years.

The oldest records available showed the farm had a capital value of 4000 in 1946, equivalent to $321,000 today.

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Mr Elliot's family want to sell all but about 50ha and offered DoC first dibs. The family said they would not take less than $15 million, which they said was a discount on the $20 million-plus they believed the holding was worth. The property will now go on the open market, likely early next year.

DoC's Far North partnerships manager Carolyn Smith said the farm's conservation values did not meet the threshold for purchase, and five other department campsites in the area meant it could not be justified on recreational grounds.