Shared outdoor spaces have to be a strategy to attract visitors and to give families living in the central city increased access to the waterfront for their health and leisure.
Only one in 78 visitors to Auckland visits the waterfront, figures from local authorities show.
That is a fraction of world-class waterfronts, where tourists average more than one waterfront visit per trip. And estimates suggest Auckland has a lot to gain from increasing tourism.
"The opportunity for Auckland is to become a destination in its own right rather than just a gateway to the rest of New Zealand," said Heather Shotter, executive director for city advocacy group Committee for Auckland.
In a report in November 2010, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimated fewer than 74,000 visits were made to the waterfront by 5.7 million visitors.
Among international visitors, that equated to one visit to the waterfront per 680 nights, against once every five to 10 nights in San Francisco, Sydney, Cape Town and Vancouver.
The difference is striking, and Heart of the City says an additional night spent in Auckland by every visitor, on average, would boost the economy by $1 billion a year.
The PwC report is also optimistic. "A redeveloped waterfront will soon make its way on to postcards and into the memories of visitors, and will help build a brand for Auckland," it says.
"A redeveloped waterfront could propel Auckland into a different league with Sydney or Hong Kong."
It projected gains in employment, liveability and even environmental and health benefits, and up to 4 million visitors to the waterfront by 2040.
Waterfront Auckland's general manager of development, Rod Marler, said the city had started the journey with the opening of the Wynyard Quarter and the release of the Waterfront Plan. "The waterfront didn't attract visitors because they couldn't get to it," Mr Marler said.
"The Rugby World Cup really acted as a catalyst to open it all up."
Auckland Tourism, Event and Economic Development acting general manager destination Jason Hill said: "Our waterfront is the gateway to the world-class Hauraki Gulf Marine Park ... The recent developments of the waterfront have boosted the area's appeal and we look forward to this increasing over the coming years."
The organisation yesterday suggested how many visitors a walkway and cycleway across the Harbour Bridge could get.
Its low estimate for the proposed SkyPath, which is being pitched by Bevan Woodward and the Auckland Harbour Bridge Pathway Trust, was 199,000 - almost three times the number of 2010 waterfront visitors on the walkway alone. The upper-end estimate was 358,000 visitors a year.
In March, waterfront leaders from around the world, including Cape Town, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Singapore converged in Auckland and added their expertise to talk about the future of Auckland's waterfront.
Kaaren Goodall, a project co-ordinator at Waterfront Auckland, helped organise the three-day event.
"We got the chance to hear first-hand how places like Hong Kong and San Francisco make a real success of their waterfront areas. The reps really loved what we have done with Auckland so far and saw lots of potential for our waterfront.
"They said they love the way that the water comes right up to the city, and with the harbour steps you can actually go down and touch it - making it really part of the area.
"We have also got lots of advice on how to get private investors interested, because those are the people that we need to get on board to make big things happen on the waterfront."
Auckland's aspirational 4 million annual waterfront visits would be at the level of cities around the world whose waterfronts are their biggest draw. San Francisco, Venice, Vancouver and Sydney estimate they get 4.5 to 15 million waterfront visits a year. And the land area on which their attractions have been built are not large in many cases.
San Francisco's Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf - shopping areas which are among the United States' biggest tourist spots - are each on par with Queens Wharf in footprint.
Vancouver's Granville Island, Canada's second most visited location after the Niagara Falls, is 15ha - smaller than the Wynyard Quarter, but more densely developed.
Pier 39 has 110 shops. And census data shows that San Francisco has 90,000 residents within 2km of Fisherman's Wharf, Sydney has 100,000 around Darling Harbour, and Vancouver 140,000 around Granville Island.
Auckland, meanwhile, has 36,000 residents within 2km of Queens Wharf, according to the 2006 census.
Ms Shotter, from the Committee for Auckland, said tourism was an important aspect of turning Auckland into a successful maritime city - but developments should look at all aspects of city life.
Improving pedestrian and cycle access from the city on to the waterfront was a major priority to integrate the city and sea. An "easy" win could be an attractive pedestrian bridge or bridges over the Fanshawe St barrier to the waterfront and Viaduct Harbour. "Auckland is unique in having three harbours, several lakes and multiple rivers and streams with localised bird and plant life. One third of the world's marine mammals are in the Auckland harbours, and a similar number of the marine seabird species count our harbours home ... Add to this our cultural diversity ... [and] we have a lot to offer."
Visitors to the central city were beginning to increase, Ms Shotter said, and it was a chance to use large, open-air spaces on the waterfront as art fairs, exhibition spaces and even circuses - following the examples of cities like Sydney and San Francisco.
"Cities are about people. So everything else must necessarily flow from that and we need to look at those people who are most likely to take advantage of the city's waterfront."
More families living in the inner city made the case for more spaces.
"These people need increased access to the waterfront, whether it's walking with the kids on the weekend, getting a break from study or for a daily dose of Vitamin D.
"If the council wants to pursue a compact city as a key part of the Central City Masterplan, then shared outdoor spaces have to be a key deliverable of that strategy."
This week, we examine the key issues in a campaign to break open Auckland's waterfront. This means:
1) Opening up what's already there for everyone's use - particularly Queens Wharf, which is still far from reaching its potential;
2) Looking ahead to more wharves being opened, notably Captain Cook Wharf; and
3) Planning the entire waterfront - importantly, including ports land - as urban space, whether or not the working port is retained or developed.
Monday: What readers want on the waterfront
Tuesday: Auckland Architecture Association sketches the all-time good ideas
Today: Tourism on the waterfront
Tomorrow: The working port and its vision for Auckland
Friday: Where our city leaders stand.
By Michael Dickison Email Michael