Miles and miles from nowhere in the Pacific, this tiny island nation is a drowsy place where barefoot fishermen flit about the coral reefs in outrigger canoes.
Hardly anyone visits Kiribati, and thirsty foreigners and local residents are spinning dreams of the next ship due in port, for the country recently ran out of beer.
Yet while Kiribati may at first seem backward, in one way it is ahead of every other country in the world _ hours ahead. Because of a bit of fiddling with the international date line, each new day now apparently begins in Kiribati.
This means that tiny Kiribati, presumably resupplied with beer by then, is in place to hold the party to top all parties, the first New Year's celebration on Jan. 1, 2000. Kiribati, which few people have heard of and even fewer can pronounce, insists that it has moved the international date line in such a way that it will be the first country to usher the world into the next millennium.
"We're working hard to make this an eye-catching event," said a beaming President Teburoro Tito said. "We want the world to see Kiribati. We want to put Kiribati on the map."
Yet while Kiribati (pronounced KIH-rih-bahss) insists it will be the first country to reach midnight on Dec. 31, 1999, as well as the first to see the following sunrise, rivals are crying foul. Other countries, from Tonga to New Zealand to Fiji, assert that the party should be theirs.
Each claimant sits near the line marking 180 degrees longitude, which the date line zigs and zags around. Each hopes that thousands of revelers will descend on its shores to welcome the next millennium, setting off a boom in tourism that will carry the local economy well into the next century.
The Pacific island nations have few economic opportunities other than tourism, so this is a joust that may determine their prosperity for decades to come.
"Tonga is going to make this a big celebration," said Simote Poulivaati, secretary of the Tonga Tourist Association. "We believe this will be the beginning, and Tonga will move on from there and tourism will become much bigger."
Tonga's prime hotel, the International Dateline Hotel, is already fully booked for the last week of 1999, and several new hotels are planned in Tonga to accommodate the expected tourist boom.
The dispute arose because President Tito of Kiribati fulfilled a campaign promise two years ago by moving the date line far to the east, off the 180-degree line, so that it goes around Kiribati. Until then the date line cut through the country, so that today did not mean the same thing from one part of Kiribati to the next.
At the time, no one paid much attention to the sharp new jag in the date line or to its implications.
"I was thinking of unifying the country, and three years ago I wasn't thinking of the millennium," Tito said. "Later I realized I had accidentally made a good decision."
The upshot is that the Line Islands in the far east of Kiribati went from being among the last in the world to see each new day to being among the first. The Line Islands are two hours ahead of the Kiribati capital, Tarawa, and they are an hour ahead of countries like Tonga that hug the date line.
Kiribati's rivals have complained, but there is no international agency or procedure preventing a move of the date line.
Most new maps still show the line without the change, but some international cartographers and map publishers have accepted its new jag to the right around Kiribati. The Royal Observatory in England, which devised the international system of longitude and time-keeping, has indicated that Kiribati was within its rights to make the switch.
"There seems to be no legal reason why any country cannot declare itself to be in whatever time zone it likes, and it would thus be possible for any other island group further to the east of the Line Islands to declare itself to be keeping the same date," the observatory said in a statement. "This would obviously generate an absurd squabble, but if the financial return is sufficient and the tourists are gullible enough, it may happen."
So as things stand, clocks on Kiribati's Line Islands strike midnight at least an hour before clocks anywhere else on the globe.
Officials on Kiribati are hoping to bring cruise ships to Caroline Island, an uninhabited speck that is the easternmost land in Kiribati, but to focus the onshore festivities on Christmas Island, which has a population of 3,500.
The challenge is that Kiribati does not know a great deal about tourism. It gets only about 4,000 visitors a year, making it one of the least-visited countries in the world. Hawaii gets as many visitors in six hours as Kiribati does in a year.
It shows. Kiribati people are extremely friendly and casual, but no one has ever heard of room service. And when a reporter telephoned a hotel in Kiribati to make a reservation, a cheerful receptionist did not bother to take the name.
"I don't need the name," he said enthusiastically. "If there's an American at the airport, I'll recognize him."
Kiribati's rusticity has reassured rivals. Poulivaati of Tonga acknowledges that Kiribati had the right to move the date line, but he sniffs that Kiribati cannot take advantage of it.
"We don't see how they can develop the destination in the next two and a half years," he said.
New Zealand is also banking on its relative sophistication and proven tourist charms to entice millennial visitors. The town of Gisborne, a farming community of 30,000 people, bills itself as the first place of any size to see the sun each morning, and it is planning a major celebration with chartered flights bringing celebrators from all over the world.
"We're the first to see the sun, and we like to brag about it," said Trudi Roe, the secretary of the Gisborne Chamber of Commerce. "We're working madly to get organized, but everybody's trying to pinch this from under our noses."
For all the fuss over the celebrations, sticklers point out that the millennium properly begins only on Jan. 1, 2001. After all, the first millennium ran from A.D. 1 through 1000. Then the second millennium began in 1001, and the end of the year 2000 will mark only 999 years.
"This does not mean that we should not celebrate the start of the 2,000th year," the Royal Observatory said in a statement, "but that we should get the nomenclature correct and maybe have two sets of celebrations."