ATLANTA — It would make for a great “Jeopardy” answer: The Pacific island groups of Samoa and Kiribati share this annual first-in-the-world distinction.
And the correct question would be: Where is the new year celebrated first?
Thanks to their positions just to the west of an irregularly drawn international date line, these two Polynesian destinations roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand get to be first in line to greet the coming year.
What is the international date line?
A new day has to start somewhere first, right? And that’s what the international date line does for us. The line is an artificial boundary set up in 1884 to separate two consecutive calendar dates, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It follows a 180-degree longitude line (those run north-south across the globe vs. latitude lines that run east-west).
As NOAA explains: “When you cross the date line, you become a time traveler of sorts! Cross to the west and it’s one day later; cross back and you’ve ‘gone back in time.’ ”
The line is drawn North Pole to South Pole, but it’s not a smooth line as it twists around political borders such as far eastern Russia and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands — and islands farther south in the Pacific.
How do Samoa and Kiribati claim ‘first’ status?
It’s really simple: These two island groups are the closest to the west side of the line, beating out New Zealand and other Pacific islands such as the Marshall Islands, which lie to their west.
So what’s going on with Kiribati?
As CNN’s Holly Yan explains: “Before the mid-1990s, the international date line split Kiribati into two parts, leaving the western portion a whole day ahead of the eastern part and causing headaches when doing business.
“Now, the date line takes a massive detour of more than 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles), around Kiribati’s eastern-most islands, so that the whole nation is on the same calendar day.”
What’s the story with Samoa and its close neighbor?
This is where a line, history and money intersect to give us a very interesting division today.
European explorers didn’t reach the Samoan archipelago until the 1700s. The island group was eventually divided between Germany and the United States.
New Zealand administered the German holdings at the outbreak of World War I, and Samoa became fully independent in 1962. Meanwhile, nearby American Samoa has remained a self-governing territory of the United States.
Samoa and American Samoa are separated by just 101 miles (163 kilometers) — and by an entire year for a full day!
Wait a minute — how can that be?
Until 2011, the entire Samoan archipelago was on the same side of the international date line — to the east. So it was the last place in the world to welcome each new year.
But that turned out to be a real headache for the independent Samoans when it came to doing business with their most valuable trading partners, New Zealand and Australia. The line was redrawn for Samoa to make business dealings easier. American Samoa, with its economic interests more tied to the United States, stayed put on its traditional side of the line.
That explains why Samoa will see 2019 a full day before American Samoa, even though they are ever so close.
New year novelty aside, why else should I travel there?
Yes, it would be quite the novelty to be in these islands to ring in a new year. But there’s so much more going on, and it lasts all year long.
The Samoan archipelago is the South Pacific of your dreams — with beaches, colorful coral reefs, rainforests and waterfalls.
Speaking of waterfalls, Afu Aau Waterfall on the southeastern coast of Savai’i island is just one don’t-miss natural attraction here. You can also learn about the island culture at the Samoa Cultural Village.
And Samoa tends to remain uncrowded versus some of its other South Pacific neighbors.
Along with its natural beauty, Kiribati appeals to people who love to fish and watch birds. World War II history buffs can see artifacts from one of the bloodiest battles at Tawara.