Once, as many as 300,000 people a year enjoyed themselves at the Waiwera hot pools complex north of Auckland.

Today, locals say it's a "bloody mess", the pools have been shut since February, any visitors are greeted by a half-finished building site and there have been calls for Auckland Council to buy the once-thriving complex.

Is there a way to rescue the thermal attraction?

The site is leased to Russian billionaire Mikhail Khimich and his diamond-dealing business partner Leon Fingerhut, but last month the landowner complained of sporadic non-payment over a two-year period and gave notice to repossess the property. Khimich and Fingerhut have not responded to questions about their operations at the site.

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The owners - entities controlled by Mark and Haydn Staples of Urban Partners - control the campground, pool site and much of the town centre. They have a grand vision for the quiet place with a hill on one side and the ocean on the other, now bypassed by most traffic since the opening of the Northern Motorway extension.

The same property owners have big holdings in Auckland, including in Newmarket and Mission Bay.

Evan Vertue, project director of Waiwera Properties, which is part of the Staples' operation, says the campground, pools, hotel and other sites under their control cover close to 5 hectares. "It's very large, all the commercially zoned land in Waiwera, so obviously that's a big opportunity. Waiwera is a potential development in the longer term," he says.

The site could include a wellness centre, hotel and motel rooms, health and fitness facilities - "all activities with hot water and some sort of water park. Whether that is as we have at the moment ... and then you have residential as well, as it's very much mixed use."

Vertue compares Waiwera with Hanmer Springs, the thermal resort town in Canterbury, which gets more than 500,000 visitors a year. "Whereas Waiwera Thermal Resort had always been an activity generator with in excess of 300,000 visitors per annum, but that had come back to around 160,000 and that's why everyone is so disappointed with the thermal resort because it had so much potential."

Wider attractions such as Wenderholm Regional Park and the Puhoi River only enhance its prospects, Vertue says.

"We're obviously having a good look at what we might do and the whole of the precinct."

The Auckland Unitary Plan certainly supports Vertue's vision.

It says the Waiwera precinct allows for the development of existing commercial activities in the area to include a wide variety of tourist, recreational, and conference operations and the development of residential and supporting commercial activities. That approach
supports use of the area's natural resources so it functions as a regional tourist attraction and provides opportunities for living in a coastal environment.

Dean Humphries, national director of hotels for NZ and the South Pacific at real estate company Colliers International, says significant capital is needed to develop a world-class attraction at Waiwera. But if that happens, it could then compete with the best such as Eagles Nest, Kauri Cliffs, Huka Lodge, Matakauri, Millbrook and Blanket Bay, he says.

Stephen Hamilton, NZ managing director of hotel, leisure and tourism consultants Horwath HTL, is also upbeat about prospects.

"Waiwera has got great potential to come back and be bigger and better than it used to be," he says. "There's a huge domestic market for it, let alone the international visitor potential. I've done work with the previous owners on development plans."

A mix of new hotel and motel rooms would cater for a range of price points, Hamilton says. A hot pools attraction needs broad cross-market appeal, he says, "but I wouldn't say multiple hotels".

Chris Dibble, Colliers' research and communications director, says the lease cancellation opens new opportunities. If the current lease is not re-established, a more prominent tourist attraction might emerge with far better facilities, Dibble hopes.

New developments would need to tap into the area's stunning natural resources, he says, and then the town's fortunes could change.

"It could tick a lot of boxes for the current owners, future owners and the rising number of tourism operators looking to take advantage of our growing tourism industry."

International visitor arrivals to New Zealand were up 3.6 per cent in the August year, to hit 3.8 million, and Dibble notes that 71 per cent of those people come through Auckland Airport.

About half them are on holiday and many are seeking a true Kiwi experience, he says, noting that Waiwera has been a significant recreational hub since the mid-1800s and is remembered fondly by many.

"That's not to mention the attraction potential from domestic tourists and the growth in the number of locals in the area with new residential subdivisions like Millwater only 10 kilometres away. It's definitely one to watch, but a significant turnaround and injection of capital would definitely be needed to revive it back to its former glory," says Dibble.