Samoa set for "time travel" in date line jump

APIA, Samoa - The tiny South Pacific nation of Samoa and its neighbor Tokelau will jump forward in time on Thursday, crossing westward over the international date line to align themselves with their other 21st century trading partners throughout the region.

At the stroke of midnight on Dec. 29, time in Samoa and Tokelau will leap forward to Dec. 31 — New Year's Eve. For Samoa's 186,000 citizens, and the 1,500 in Tokelau, Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, will simply cease to exist.

The time jump back to the future comes 119 years after some 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 a bid to remedy that, the Samoan government passed a law in June that will 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.

The time shift will be marked by the ringing of church bells across Samoa's two main islands, and prayer services in all the main churches of the devoutly Christian nation.

The government will also host a service for invited guests and dignitaries.

Nearby Tokelau, a three-atoll United Nations dependency, said it will join its neighbor in the date line dance to maintain its alignment with Samoa, three sailing days away, where its administration is based.

Tokelau's parliament, the Tokelau General Fono, recently voted to go ahead with the change, although it still has to complete all formalities for the date line switch, a New Zealand foreign ministry official said in Wellington on Thursday.

"They're going ahead and doing it ... the same as Samoa," ministry spokeswoman Susan Budd said. The territory is administered by New Zealand on behalf of the U.N.

Initially strongly opposed by Samoa's opposition Tautua Samoa Party, the law to make the date line switch won its support after leader A'eau Peniamina told the nation's Parliament, "It's a change that benefits the people."

Prime Minister Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoi earlier said it would strengthen trade and economic links with Australia, New Zealand and Asia.

Being a day behind the 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.

"In doing business with New Zealand and Australia, we're losing out on two working days a week," Tuila'epa said in a statement. "While it's Friday here, it's Saturday in New Zealand, and when we're at church on Sunday, they're already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane."

"Today we do a lot more business with New Zealand and Australia, China and Pacific Rim countries such as Singapore," the prime minister said, adding that his latest idea will make commerce with the region "far, far easier."

Like many small Pacific island states, more of Samoa's people live permanently overseas than on its islands. Around 180,000 Samoans live in New Zealand, 15,000 in Australia and tens of thousands more in the U.S.

Other island groups with more of their citizens living offshore than on include Tuvalu, Niue, Tonga, Cook Islands and tiny Tokelau.

The Ulu, or chief, of Tokelau, Foua Toloa, said Thursday that the New Zealand government had given its blessing for Tokelau to make the change.

"The General Fono (parliament) decision has been endorsed, and we hope that the people will go to sleep on Thursday night and wake up the next day, Saturday, the 31st of December, without any huge changes," he told Radio New Zealand International.

For Samoa, it's the second big economic modernizing move by the governing Human Rights Protection Party in recent years, following its switch to driving on the left side of the country's roads in 2009, another move to align it with the two regional powers.

Tuila'epa said at the time the change made it easier for Samoans in Australia and New Zealand to send used cars home to their relatives. Opponents predicted major traffic problems, but they never happened.

So far, only Samoa's small Seventh Day Adventist Church has indicated a major problem for its congregation, which traditionally begins celebrations for the Sabbath on Friday night and continues through Saturday.

The Seventh Day Adventist parish in Samoa's Samatau village has decided it will continue to observe the Sabbath day on Saturdays despite changes forced on the church by the westward switch of the date line.

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.

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