The argument, which has involved the United Nations, the Royal Greenwich Observatory and much flexing of beach-side palm trees, might not have happened but for entrepreneurial schemes for New Year's Eve, 1999. Travel agents have detected a market for "we-were-first-to-see-in-the-new-millennium" parties and are scouring the Pacific for the first landfall west of the date line. The agreed venue will make a fortune.
The search has been complicated by the decision of some islanders to "move" the date line. The tiny nation of Kiribati, formerly the Gilbert, Phoenix and Line island groups, has angered its Pacific neighbours by moving part of the line to its eastern extremity, Caroline Island. The little-noticed move was a key item in the 1993 political manifesto of President Teburoro Tito and solved the problems which beset Kiribati when it was split by the date line. It was, formerly, a bold man who used the word "today" in Kiribatian society.
Nearby Tonga, which was happily expecting to be venue for the lucrative parties, thinks that Kiribati has pulled a fast one. The King of Tonga is not happy. The International Date Line Hotel in the Tongan town of Nukualofa not only faces an unwanted name change, it may also lose the bookings it has taken for the turn of the millennium. There is similar dismay in the Chatham Islands, and on New Zealand's North Island, where the town of Gisborne was limbering up for the big night with the argument that west of the line it is the first place with good bars. Gisborne District Council was planning a party atop a mountain which has early views of the sunrise.
As a result of the presidential manoeuvre, however, Kiribati will now see the millennium's dawn 22 minutes before the Chathams, and a humiliating 80 minutes before Tonga.
The Royal Greenwich Observatory and cartographers have accepted Kiribati's line change, and appeals to the United Nations have met with the response that the date line, decided by an international conference in 1884, is beyond its control.