Travel: Daggers drawn in race to the millennium dawn

Simon Birch looks at the rival claims of the countries hoping to be the first to greet the year 2000

Still wondering where to spend New Year's Eve? If you think you're having a hard enough time deciding what to do this year, consider the scale of the problem that you'll be confronted with in exactly two years' time. There are now just 733 days left to decide how to spend the night of Friday 31 December 1999.

And while policemen busy themselves putting the crash barriers up in London's Trafalgar Square and Edinburgh's Princes Street for Wednesday night's drunken and snogging masses, on the other side of the world plans are already in motion for what Pacific islanders hope will be the party of the millennium.

And not only because the weather is rather nicer in the Pacific. With the International Dateline running right through the middle of it, the South Pacific is where every new day starts and ends, and where people will be the first to witness 1 January 2000 and the last to bid farewell - or good riddance - to the old millennium.

And it is this geographical fact of life that countries in the South Pacific are now grabbing with both hands.

Launched in April last year, an organisation calling itself the South Pacific Millennium Consortium is made up of a dozen small island states which lie scattered across the deep blue vastness of the South Pacific (as well as tourist organisations and airlines) which have all come together with the sole aim of pooling resources and extolling the virtues of the South Pacific as the ultimate destination for New Year's Eve 1999.

With the region currently getting less than two per cent of world tourism, Francis Mortimer from Air New Zealand acknowledges that the millennium is a gift from marketing heaven. "The new millennium is the greatest opportunity that the region will have in a thousand years to raise its profile." But, warns Mortimer, "the task demands a collective effort".

And collective is what the effort has so far not been. The problem is that everyone has their eye on the tourist dollars to be made out of hosting the very first sunrise of the new millennium. The result has been that for the past 12 months or so the South Pacific has been awash with claim and counter claim as to who is actually going to be the first to greet the new millennium.

The dispute stems from the position of the individual Pacific Islands relative to the International Dateline. Agreed upon internationally by the 1884 Washington Meridian Conference, the 180 meridian (the one that is 12 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time) was chosen because it runs more or less through the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where there is a virtual absence of land.

However in determining the precise path of the dateline it was agreed to deviate from the 180 meridian to avoid countries such as Fiji and Samoa which straddle it. The reason for this being that places immediately to the west of the dateline are always one day ahead of places immediately to the east (it would be a tad inconvenient to have two such places within the same country).

On the face of it then it would seem pretty straightforward as to who's going to get the millennium first prize: simply find the country which sits closest to the western edge of 180 meridian - the original basis for the dateline.

The winner on these terms would have to be Fiji. "Of course we're first," declares Mick Beddoes, a Fiji based tour operator, "The 180 meridian passes right through us, so there's no question that this is where you ought to be for New Year's Eve 1999."

Mr Beddoes is right in that the 180 meridian does indeed pass right through the heart of Taveuni, one of Fiji's many tropical islands and one of the few pieces of land that the line actually crosses (though Fiji's tourist bosses really ought to do something about the grubby little commemorative stone and map which marks the passage of the meridian through the island and which represents the basis of Fiji's claim to the millennium crown).

Unfortunately for Fiji however, nobody else is really taking their claim seriously. Instead everybody is looking at the dateline rather than at the 180 meridian as the bench mark in the millennium race.

On this basis Tonga would seem to have a pretty strong case. Lying a couple of hundred miles to the east of Fiji, the South Pacific kingdom is just 180 miles west of the dateline. To further boost their chances, a "Millennium Celebrations Planning and Coordinating Committee" thought they would be a little creative to keep one jump ahead of the pack.

Believing that a local time change would make the sunrise an hour earlier, the committee are thinking about introducing daylight saving just for 1999-2000 - and so gain a strategically important extra hour.

"Foul!" was the cry from the Royal Greenwich Observatory, the referee in this South Sea tussle of time. The Observatory says that Tonga's tactics are a nonsense because the relative times of sunrise at different places must be measured using a standard time such as GMT. "Any other time zone can be used and will make no difference to the relative time of sunrise," the observatory says.

But if they were handing out prizes for sheer nerve and scale of manoeuvring, then Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) would scoop the lot. This tiny Pacific Island state is home to just 75,000 people who live on 33 low-lying coral islands which are strung out over one million square miles of the South Pacific and through which runs the 180 meridian - neatly dividing the country in two.

This has resulted in Kiribati's far flung Line Islands living on a time zone one day behind Tarawa, the country's capital some two thousand miles to the west. In order to sort out this administrative nightmare, in January 1995 the Kiribati Ministry for Foreign Affairs took it upon itself to shift the dateline one thousand miles east around its eastern most territory, a move that would bring the whole of the country under the same calendar day.

The consequence of this action, which by all accounts breaks no international law - is that of course Kiribati is now putting itself forward as the rightful winner in the first sunrise squabble. Because by lunging the date line 1000 miles to the east, it just so happens that an uninhabited coral atoll called Caroline Island, now hastily renamed Millennium Island, has been brought over to the western side of the date line - and is therefore according to Kiribati the first place to greet each new day (having previously been the last place to witness the end of the old day).

If recreating Oliver Reed and Amanda Donahoe's role in Castaway is your thing, then Millennium Island may be for you. If not, then put your credit card away because this former guano mine has little in the way of tourist facilities, there being a noticeable lack of people, infrastructure or indeed anything else apart from miles of gleaming white, deserted tropical beaches.

Not that this has deterred Kiribati from thinking big and marketing the island as the first place in the world to see the dawn in 2000.

A case of shifting the goalposts, the pitch and the stadium as well? Er, cheating? Kiribati's neighbours have been forthcoming in their dismissal of Tarawa's tactics. "Their claim is not recognised internationally," maintains Tonga's Director of Tourism Semisi Taumoepeau - before adding that "a majority of people in the world" recognise that Tonga will be the first country to greet the New Year. Really?

In fact - according to the experts - the first sunrise of the new millennium will not occur on any of the tropical South Sea Islands. It turns out that you'll need your thermals rather than your suntan cream if you want to witness the genuine first dawn of the year 2000.

According to the calculations of the Royal Geographical Society published in last month's Geographical Journal, the first piece of inhabited land to be kissed by the rays of the new millennium will be the summit of Mount Hakepa on Pitt Island at 15.59 GMT on 31 December 1999 - that's 03.59 local time on 1 January 2000.

A smudge of windswept land some 680 miles east of New Zealand, Pitt Island is part of New Zealand's Chatham Islands - thus making New Zealand the official winner in the millennial stakes.

The Journal goes on to castigate the efforts of both Tonga and Kiribati to snatch the millennial crown. "The arbitrary and unilateral moving of time zones or the International Dateline does not give rise to any level of credibility in the international navigation community," it points out.

That Pitt Island sneaked in first ahead of the main runners was due to the fact that the Pacific Island states hadn't fully appreciated the effects of longitude and latitude on sunrise times. Pitt Island emerged as the winner not because it was closest to the dateline - but because of its southerly location.

Denis O'Reily, Director of New Zealand's Millennium Office, isn't really too bothered about how the Royal Geographical Society scientists arrived at their verdict - he is just jubilant that New Zealand has emerged the victor. "To hell with the science, the bottom line is that New Zealand is number one to see the sun," he says.

Chris Cocker from the South Pacific Millennium Commission also claims not to care. "As far as I'm concerned it's the South Pacific region that's going to be the first part of the world to greet the new millennium. There'll be more than enough millennium tourist business to go around."

Indeed. Who really gives a coconut as to whether New Zealand gets the sunrise 45 minutes earlier than Tonga or Taveuni or wherever? Just as long as you are sitting under a swaying palm tree in a swimming costume with a glass of champagne in your hand somewhere on the other side of the world - light-years away from being snogged by smashed strangers in Trafalgar Square.

2000 fact file

Getting There

Passengers wanting to travel to the South Pacific for New Year's Eve 1999 should book as soon as possible. Air New Zealand is now accepting bookings. (tel 0181 741 2299).

Information

Visit the South Pacific Millennium Commission's home page (www.tcsp.com/millennium/mill.htm) and South Pacific On Line (www.tcsp.com) Alternatively contact the Tourism Council for the South Pacific (tel 0181 392 1838).

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