SYDNEY (AP) — Glittering fireworks in the shapes of butterflies, hearts and a cascading waterfall exploded over Sydney’s Harbour Bridge on Sunday as cheering revelers welcomed 2012 and bid a weary adieu to a year marred by natural disasters and economic turmoil.
More than 1.5 million people crowded onto yachts and along the shores of the city’s harbor to watch the shimmering pyrotechnic display designed around the theme “Time to Dream” — a nod to the eagerness many felt in 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, producer of Sydney’s New Year’s festivities.
Some of the fireworks formed the shape of clouds — “Because every cloud has a silver lining,” Coffey said. Colorful lights beamed onto the center of the bridge formed an “endless rainbow” symbolizing 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 cyclone in February. “It’s gotta be a better year next year.”
World leaders evoked 2011’s events in their New Year’s messages. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who starts his second term on New Year’s Day, said he wants to help ensure and sustain the moves toward democracy that protesters sought in the Arab Spring.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the new year would be more difficult than 2011 but dealing with Europe’s debt crisis would bring its countries closer. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wished well being and prosperity to all Russians “regardless of their political persuasion” after large-scale protests against him.
The mood was festive in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, where, for once, revelers were the first in the world to welcome the new year, rather than the last.
Samoa and neighboring Tokelau hopped across the international date line at midnight on Thursday, skipping Friday and moving instantly to Saturday. The time-jump revelry that began at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 31 spilled into the night, with Samoans and tourists crowding around pools and on beaches to toast the start of 2012.
Samoa and 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.
“Everyone is happy right now,” said Mao Visita, who was celebrating at the popular Aggie Grey’s hotel in the capital, Apia. “The party is still going on with plenty of music.”
Things were slightly more subdued in New Zealand, where torrential rains and thunderstorms canceled fireworks displays in the capital, Wellington, the North Island city of Palmerston North and at the popular Mount Maunganui beach area. Aucklanders had better luck, with thousands crowding the city to watch fireworks erupt from the Sky Tower.
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 were reflecting on the fragility of life, while 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 in Japan spent Saturday visiting shrines and temples, offering their first prayers for the year. The giant hanging bells at temples were to ring 108 times to purify the world of evil and bring good luck.
University student Kouichi Takayama 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 coping with the aftermath of a tropical storm and flash flooding that killed more than 1,200.
For Ana Caneda, a disaster relief official in the badly hit city, 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 shot from 10 skyscrapers, lighting up 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.”
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.