Asia-Pacific ready to set global New Year party rolling

As the Earth rolled towards 2009 Wednesday, the world prepared to turn its back on a turbulent 2008 with New Year celebrations ranging from the spectacular to the sombre.

Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House during a pyrotechnic show to celebrate the New Year January 1, 2008.

Record crowds of 1.5 million were expected to kick off the global party with a fireworks extravaganza over the iconic harbour bridge and Opera House in Sydney, the world's first major city to see in the New Year.

"It's probably 30 percent bigger on the bridge alone than it's been in previous years," said fireworks director Fortunato Foti. "Personally, I don't think you can have too many fireworks."

But India was set for a subdued New Year's Eve, with the country still coming to terms with the trauma of November's Mumbai terror attacks that left 172 people dead.

Tight security was planned in the vast city, with police keeping an especially close watch on the traditional boat parties along the city's famed waterfront.

Some of the militants who took part in the November attacks had slipped into Mumbai from the sea.

Joint Mumbai police commissioner K.L. Prasad said partygoers on boats would not be allowed to return to shore once celebrations had begun.

"It may create a sense of fear among the crowd if they see somebody alighting from the boat," Prasad said.

The resort state of Goa has banned its famous beach parties -- a huge draw for foreign tourists -- and extra paramilitary troops have been deployed to ensure security.

Police will also step up their presence in the key tourist and shopping districts of central and south Delhi, which were hit by a series of bomb blasts in September.

A sombre note will also be sounded in neighbouring Pakistan as December 31 falls on the second day of the Muslim mourning month of Muharram, which marks the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson in the seventh century.

"There are no New Year's functions at the hotel due to Muharram," said Jamil Khawar, a spokesman for the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which reopened at the weekend, three months after it was gutted in a suicide truck bombing.

In the southern port of Karachi, luxury hotels are not planning events due to Muharram but people were expected to gather on the city's Arabian Sea beaches to ring in 2009 -- with hundreds of paramilitary police on watch.

"Yes, there is a threat perception during the New Year celebration but we have taken foolproof security measures to avoid such threats," said senior police official Azad Khan.

Apart from the carnage wrought by militant violence, the global financial meltdown will also dampen some spirits.

In Tokyo, laid off workers are camping out in the city's Hibiya Park during the holidays after companies including leading carmakers cut tens of thousands of jobs.

Anti-poverty activists will offer a soup kitchen and put on a concert to entertain laid-off temporary workers who lost their corporate housing.

In Hong Kong, the Times Square shopping mall said it had prepared more than ten thousand sets of party props for revellers at its countdown event -- the Hong Kong version of New York's famous celebration.

The props this year will include "cheering sticks" printed with phrases of blessings in Chinese characters, such as "everyone got a job", "a blooming stock market", and "good economy for Hong Kong", a spokesman said.

In South Korea, police were on alert against a possible anti-government protest at Bosingak Pavilion in downtown Seoul after some Internet websites called for a candle-lit demonstration.

The annual event at Bosingak, which features 33 strikes of an ancient bronze bell to announce the start of the New Year, usually draws more than 100,000 revellers.

But in many cities, the difficulties of the past year will be forgotten in an upwelling of hope for what the new one might bring.

In Singapore, more than 250,000 people are expected to crowd the waterfront Marina Bay area for a fireworks show, while the Singapore River will be lit by 10,000 "wishing spheres" covered with personal wishes of Singaporeans.

In the Philippines, the authorities are bracing themselves for traditional New Year's Eve festivities when celebratory gunfire often punctuates the bedlam created by millions of people letting off firecrackers.

Hospitals are on alert for emergency cases of firecracker and gunshot injuries while the police and military are being warned against firing their guns into the air.

China's main festivities will come later in the month with a week-long holiday for the traditional Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations.

However many Chinese will also enjoy a mini-holiday thanks to the New Year, with January 1 a national public holiday and companies giving staff Friday off so that they have a continued break into the weekend.

As the Earth continues to roll and the celebrations move across the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, festival goers in New Zealand's east coast city of Gisborne will be the first in the world to see the first sun rise of the New Year.

Source: AFP

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