By Aimee Harris
Date Line Politics
How did the Republic of Kiribati become the first country to enter the new millenium? By shifting the International Date Line more than 2,000 miles east. So that it will be 2000 in Kiribati while it's still 1999 in Hawai'i.
The international date line drawn north and south through the Pacific Ocean may be an imaginary line, but the dispute over where it's drawn is very real. Many South Pacific islands are jockeying for position along the international date line, in a struggle to be the first place on Earth where each calendar day begins and each New Year. Each contestant wants to be able to say, "The Year 2000 starts here!"
At stake is a mix of international travel dollars and pure novelty. Bill Paupe, Kiribati's honorary consul, says, "Everybody is making a case that they are first, and, of course, they've been able to sell that to a number of people."
The islands that are promoting themselves as official millennium sites are the Catham Islands east of New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Kiribati. Which island will be the first to officially celebrate Jan. 1, 2000, is debatable.
The National Geographic Society recognizes the Catham Islands east of New Zealand as the first inhabited place to see each sunrise. But, the Tongan government has considered implementing daylight-saving time to beat the Catham Islands to the millennium. However, Tonga pulled out and remains one hour behind the finish line. Fiji, on the other hand, claims to be the leader of the Pacific pack since it straddles the 180th meridian, which was designated as the halfway point around the globe in 1884. Fiji's Daily Post reported in January that the New York-based Millennium World Time Zone organization insisted, "It's official. Fiji will be the first country in the world to enter the third millennium." Even Gisborne, New Zealand, enters the race as first city to celebrate the new millennium.
Finally, there's Kiribati (pronounced KIR-ee-bas). Kiribati's island chain spreads over 2,000 miles of ocean the span of Western Europe but its 33 atolls cover less area than London. Prior to Jan. 1, 1995, Kiribati had two main island groups on each side of the date line. Consequently, the local time difference between the two groups was 23 hours same island chain, two different dates. To simplify business and government work and possibly to chase the new millennium, Kiribati "bent" the international date line to include its easternmost land mass, Caroline Island, which, not coincidentally, has been renamed Millennium Island.
"We [Kiribati's consul] are adhering to the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which is the designated world authority on the time zones, and it has said that Millennium Island would be the first to experience the dawn of the new millennium," Paupe said.
Can countries simply "spring forward or fall back" in time, and change where the international date line falls? "Yes," says Robert Kiste, director of the Center for Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawai'i. "They can, it's up to each country to determine its own time zone."
So hypothetically, could Hawai'i enter the millennium race by stretching the international date line as far as the Polynesian Islands? "Yes! There's no international law or treaty that prohibits countries from changing their time zones," Paupe said.
Some millennium tourists are heading toward the Catham Islands, New Zealand or Kiribati's Christmas Island. Ironically, there are no visitor facilities of any kind on Millennium Island. Actually, it's uninhabited. "People want to book tickets to the island,'' Paupe sighs, "but they don't believe me when I tell them there are no accommodations there."
"To me, I just don't see what all the hoopla is about frankly," Paupe admitted. "What difference is it going to make to our lives, besides this so-called computer glitch? It's not going to change your livelihood, it isn't going to change the environment, it's not going to change anything. The next day the sun is going to come up again and then it will all be forgotten."
What about those who are reluctant to leap into the new millennium? Where can they go to celebrate? Well, Samoa remains unchallenged in its bragging rights as the last place on Earth to celebrate the closing of the century.