APIA, Samoa (AP) — The New Year's Eve parties started a whole day early on the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, after a hop across the international date line transported the country 24 hours into the future — making it the first in the world to ring in the new year.
Samoans began celebrating under a rainbow of fireworks at the stroke of midnight on Thursday, Dec. 29 — when the country skipped over Friday and moved straight into 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 31.
Samoa and neighboring Tokelau lie near the date line that zigzags vertically through the Pacific Ocean, and both sets of islands decided to realign themselves this year from the Americas side of the line to the Asia side, to be more in tune with key trading partners.
The time-jump revelry in Samoa continued throughout Saturday as the hours ticked down to 2012. Pools and beaches across the capital, Apia, were packed with Samoans and tourists celebrating the country's sudden position as the first in the world to ring in the new year, rather than the last.
Despite the extended festivities, Samoan police said there had been no reports of any problems.
"More than 90 percent of our people really appreciate the change, and that contributes to its success," said one official who could not be named as he was not authorized to speak publicly.
Elsewhere across the globe, people prepared to say goodbye to a year that was marked by upheaval and mass protests in several Arab countries, economic turmoil and a seemingly endless string of devastating natural disasters.
In Australia, people began crowding onto the shores of Sydney's glittering harbor early Saturday in a bid for the best spot to watch the midnight fireworks extravaganza over the iconic Harbour Bridge. The display was designed around the theme "Time to Dream," a nod to the eagerness many felt at moving forward after the rough year.
"It's about giving people the opportunity to dream of the year ahead and that hopefully it is a bit better than the year we've had," said Aneurin Coffey, the producer of Sydney's New Year's festivities.
Some of the fireworks were expected to explode in the shape of clouds — "Because every cloud has a silver lining," Coffey said. A series of colorful lights will be beamed onto the center of the bridge forming an "endless rainbow" meant to evoke hope.
Many were eager for a fresh start.
"I've had enough this year," said 68-year-old Sandra Cameron, who lost nearly everything she owned when her home in Australia's Queensland state was flooded to the ceiling during a monstrous cyclone in February. "It's gotta be a better year next year."
For Japan, 2011 was the year the nation was struck by a giant tsunami and earthquake that left an entire coastline destroyed, nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in meltdown.
At the year's end, many in Japan were left reflecting on the fragility of life, while remaining quietly determined to recover.
"For me, the biggest thing that defined this year was the disaster in March," said Miku Sano, 28, a nursing student in Fukushima city. "Honestly, I didn't know what to say to these people, who had to fight sickness while living in fear about ever being able to go back home. The radiation levels in the city of Fukushima, where I live, are definitely not low, and we don't know how that is going to affect our health in the future."
People across Japan were expected to spend Saturday visiting shrines and temples, offering their first prayers for the year. The giant hanging bells at temples will ring 108 times to purify the world of evil and bring good luck.
Kouichi Takayama, a university student, said 2011 was a year he would never forget.
"It was a year I felt the preciousness of life with a passion," he said. "But I was also able to catch a glimpse of the warmth of human relations, and reconfirm my gratitude for family, community and everyday life. I hope I can connect meaningfully with more people next year to create a Japan that truly endures toward the future."
In the southern Philippine city of Cagayan de Oro, people were still reeling from deadly flash flooding sparked by Tropical Storm Washi. The storm killed more than 1,200 in the southern and central Philippines, 800 of which were in Cagayan de Oro.
For Ana Caneda, a disaster relief official in Cagayan de Oro, the new year "offers a new ray of hope."
"It's going to be a relief to write the date 2012, not 2011," Caneda said.
In Hong Kong, more than 400,000 people were expected to watch a 4-minute, $1 million display of fireworks that will shoot off from 10 skyscrapers, lighting up the city's famed Victoria Harbour.
Raymond Lo, a master of feng shui — the Chinese art of arranging objects and choosing dates to improve luck — said he wasn't surprised that 2011 was such a tumultuous year because it was associated with the natural elements of metal and wood. The year's natural disasters were foreshadowed, Lo said, because wood — which represents trees and nature — was attacked by metal.
2012 could be better because it's associated with ocean water, which represents energy and drive and the washing away of old habits, Lo said.
"Big water also means charity, generosity," Lo said. "Therefore that means sharing. That means maybe the big tycoons will share some of their wealth."
Gelineau reported from Sydney. Associated Press writers Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.