Sirens wailed and fireworks exploded in the skies over Samoa as the tiny South Pacific nation jumped forward in time, crossing westward over the international date line and effectively erasing Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, from the country’s calendar.
Samoans who had gathered around the main clock tower in the capital Apia cheered and clapped as the clock struck midnight on Thursday, Dec. 29, instantly transporting the country 24 hours ahead to Saturday, Dec. 31. The switch, also being observed by neighboring Tokelau, is meant to align the islands’ time with key trading partners in the Asia-Pacific region.
The time jump means that Samoa’s 186,000 citizens, and the 1,500 in the three-atoll United Nations dependency of Tokelau, will now be the first in the world to ring in the new year, rather than the last.
The moment was greeted with celebrations across Samoa. Fireworks danced across the sky and police, ambulance and fire truck sirens wailed throughout Apia to signal the change. Drivers circled the clock tower blaring their horns, and prayer services were held across the country.
The date line dance comes 119 years after a group of U.S. traders persuaded local Samoan authorities to align their islands’ time with nearby U.S.-controlled American Samoa and the U.S. to assist their trading with California.
But the time zone has proved problematic in recent years, putting Samoa and Tokelau nearly a full day behind neighboring Australia and New Zealand, increasingly important trading partners.
In June, the Samoan government passed a law to move Samoa west of the international date line, which separates one calendar day from the next and runs roughly north-to-south through the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Under a government decree, all those scheduled to work on the nonexistent Friday will be given full pay for the missed day of labor.
In addition to the economic advantages, the time jump is also expected to make the everyday rituals of family life a little more pleasant. Like many small Pacific island states, more of Samoa’s people live permanently in other countries than on its islands; Around 180,000 Samoans live in New Zealand and 15,000 in Australia. The date line switch means that families split between the island nation and Australia or New Zealand can now celebrate important events such as birthdays at the same time.
“We’ve got to remember that over 90 percent of our people emigrate to New Zealand and Australia. That’s why it is absolutely vital to make this change,” Prime Minister Tuila’epa Sailele Malielegaoi told The Associated Press just hours before the country catapulted into the future.
Officials have begun work on changing maps, charts and atlases to reflect Samoa’s new date line position. A postage stamp, featuring the phrase “into the future,” has also been created to mark the switch.
Although generally embraced by most Samoans, the date change wasn’t expected to happen without a few little glitches. Digicel, the most popular mobile phone service provider in Samoa, said the company would have to update its systems immediately after the time jump, leaving phone service dead for about 15 minutes.
“The interruption will only take a few minutes so we can adjust our system,” CEO Pepe Fiaailetoa Fruean said. “So I would like to inform all of our customers to have alternative communication means available in case of an emergency.”
Being a day behind the rest of the Asia-Pacific region has meant that when it’s dawn Sunday in Samoa, it’s already dawn Monday in adjacent Tonga and nearly dawn Monday in nearby New Zealand, Australia and increasingly prominent east Asian trade partners such as China.
The original shift to the east side of the line was made in 1892, when Samoa celebrated July 4 twice, giving a nod to Independence Day in the U.S.
The date line drawn by mapmakers is not mandated by any international body. By tradition, it runs roughly through the 180-degree line of longitude, but it zigzags to accommodate the choices of Pacific nations on how to align their calendars.