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Asia and Oceania Devise 1,000 Ways to Greet 2000

International Herald Tribune
By Thomas Crampton

BANGKOK (September 20, 1999)--- Most experts agree the next millennium will dawn over Oceania, but squabbling over the exact location has left a bewildering selection of sites luring tourists to see the first sunrise of the next thousand years.

These claims come despite the fact that mathematicians maintain that the next millennium does not actually begin until Jan. 1, 2001, (there was no year A.D. 0) and certain scholars assert that Christ was actually born a few years before A.D. 1 (meaning the celebrations are all already late).

Nonetheless, Kiribati, a little-known and far-flung archipelago in the South Pacific, staked one of the earliest claims to the millennium's first dawn.

Formerly cleaved in two by the International Dateline - the imaginary line running through the Pacific that divides today from tomorrow - Kiribati recently united itself in one day by pushing the dateline beyond the nation's easternmost land mass, Caroline Island.

The government soon thereafter changed the name of Caroline, a low-lying and uninhabited atoll, to Millennium Island and made it the centerpiece of the tiny nation's attempt at cashing in on New Year celebrations.

Program details remain sketchy, but the government says it intends to ferry a few hundred passengers in shallow draft boats through the reefs surrounding Millennium Island in order to see the first rays of light on land, listen to a presidential address, say a short prayer and watch traditional dancing.

Few of the hundred or so hotel rooms on the island nearest to Millennium Island remain vacant, but almost no reservations have been made at several hotels on the country's main island, Tarawa.

''I think we have no reservations partly because of the few direct flights,'' said Inatio Teanako, manager of Mary's Motel on Tarawa Island. ''But adding to it is the unfair and misleading information spread to say that the sun will rise first in another country.''
Tebaniman Takabwebwe, the official coordinator for Kiribati's millennium events, said the government strongly rejects any assertion that it will be beaten into the New Year by another country, citing a study by the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London as proof.

Another Pacific Island nation, however, Fiji, promotes itself as the ideal site for the first sunrise and first country to enter the new millennium, also based on foreign scientific studies.

Early this year, the New York-based Millennium World Time Zone Organization (http://www.worldtimezone.com), vindicated Fiji's claim to be first into the new millennium, according to reports in Fiji's Daily Post newspaper.

Fiji officials claimed a victory of common sense over countries that moved the International Dateline, like Kiribati, or contemplated shifting time zones, like Tonga, another South Pacific nation.

Even before the Daily Post report, however, Fiji's highly developed tourism industry began highlighting the fact that the island nation is one of the few places on Earth where the 180th meridian, which defines much of the International Dateline, crosses land.

Cutting across three of the country's islands, the meridian line will be illuminated on New Year's Eve by a laser-light show and afterwards marked by a more permanent monument.

Beyond fireworks and music, plans have been made to allow tourists to buy, lick and post a collector's set of first-day cover stamps on the actual meridian line. The government also reports that a large contingent of Hare Krishna devotees, including the rock star Boy George, plan to join the Fiji celebrations.

Those not content to party can help plant a forest of millennium trees and endangered plant species along the meridian line or join Habitat for Humanity in constructing 10 houses for the poor over the New Year weekend, with the final nail hammered in the first house at midnight on Jan. 1.

While details for many of these events are available through the Fiji Visitor's Bureau (http://www.BulaFiji.com), travelers intent on seeing the first sunrise of the New Year on inhabited land need to head for New Zealand, according to a different study.

The Geographical Journal, a scholarly publication of Britain's eminent Royal Geographical Society, asserts that the first permanently inhabited place on Earth struck by New Year's dawn will be Hakepa Hill on New Zealand's Pitt Island.

Shortly after Hakepa Hill, dawn will illuminate the city of Gisborne, on New Zealand's North Island, making it the world's first major urban area to enter the New Year and justifying New Zealand's promotional moniker: ''First to the future.'' Many events are scheduled to take place in the vicinity of Gisborne on New Year's Eve, including a midnight mass marriage, a horse-mounted herding of bullocks to the coast in time for sunrise and a dawn concert of classical arias and traditional Maori music sung by Kiri Te Kanawa on Gisborne's Waikanae beach.

The city's Web site (www.gisborne2000.org.nz) carries details of more events, but according to yet another study, the most scientifically correct site to see the New Year's first dawn is much further west than New Zealand.

In its Web site, the U.S. Naval Observatory (http:// aa.usno.navy.mil/AA/faq/docs/first_sunrise.html) concurs with many of the Royal Geographical Society findings but asserts that astronomers plan to celebrate the New Year at the stroke of midnight, Greenwich Mean Time.

For astronomers, the observatory said, the first sunrise of the New Year will take place simultaneously along a line stretching from Siberia, down through China, along the Burma-Thailand border, across the Nicobar Islands and through the Indian Ocean to the Antarctic. The study also points out that it will be impossible to experience dawn in much of Antarctica since the sun does not set there in summer.

THOMAS CRAMPTON is a correspondent for the International Herald Tribune in Bangkok.




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