With countdowns and fireworks, revellers in major city centres across the Asia-Pacific region were ushering in the first new year without COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic began in 2020.
Lockdowns that in many places were still in place at the end of 2020 and a surge in Omicron cases at the end of 2021 led to crowd limits and reduced festivities.
However, curbs on celebrations have been lifted this year after Australia, like many countries around the world, reopened its borders and removed social distancing restrictions.
While COVID-19 continues to cause death and dismay — particularly in China, which is battling a nationwide surge in infections after suddenly easing measures to control its spread — countries had largely lifted quarantine requirements, restrictions for visitors and frequent testing that had limited travel and places people can visit.
Celebrations are being held at the Great Wall in Beijing, while in Shanghai authorities said traffic will be stopped along the waterfront Bund to allow pedestrians to gather on New Year’s Eve. Shanghai Disneyland will also hold a special fireworks show to welcome 2023.
Reunions in Ukraine
On the last day of a year marked by the brutal war in Ukraine, many in the country returned to the capital Kyiv to spend New Year’s Eve with their loved ones. As Russia attacks continue to target power supplies leaving millions without electricity, no big celebrations are expected and a curfew will be in place as the clock rings in the new year. But for most Ukrainians, being together with their families is already a luxury.
Still wearing his military uniform, Mykyta gripped a bouquet of pink roses tightly as he waited for his wife Valeriia to arrive from Poland on platform 9. He hadn’t seen her in six months. “It actually was really tough, you know, to wait so long,” he told The Associated Press after hugging and kissing Valeriia.
The couple declined to share their family name for security reasons as Mykyta has been fighting on the front lines in both south and east Ukraine. Valeriia first sought refuge from the conflict in Spain but later moved to Poland. Asked what their New Year’s Eve plans were, Valeriia answered simply: “Just to be together.”
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin used a nine-minute New Year’s address to the nation to accuse Western countries of aggression and trying to use the conflict in Ukraine to undermine Moscow.
Putin made the video address, shown on state television on Saturday in each of Russia’s 11 time zones, from a military headquarters with soldiers in the background, a sharp departure from his previous practice of recording the message against the backdrop of the snowy Kremlin, according to Associated Press.
“It was a year of difficult, necessary decisions, the most important steps toward gaining full sovereignty of Russia and powerful consolidation of our society,” Putin said, echoing his repeated contention that Moscow had no choice but to send troops into Ukraine because it threatened Russia’s security.
The Kremlin has muzzled any criticism of its actions in Ukraine, shut independent media outlets and criminalized the spread of any information that differs from the official view.
Ukraine on some people’s minds
Concerns about Russia’s war in Ukraine and the economic shocks it has spawned across the globe were felt in Tokyo as well, where Shigeki Kawamura has seen better times. He had lined up for a free hot meal this New Year’s.
“I hope the war will be over in Ukraine so prices will stabilize,” he said. “Nothing good has happened for the people since we’ve had Mr. Kishida,” he said, referring to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.
“Our pay isn’t going up, and our condition is worsening. The privileged may be doing well, but not those of us, who are working so hard.”
He was one of several hundred people huddled in the cold in a line circling a Tokyo park to receive free New Year’s meals of sukiyaki, or slices of beef cooked in sweet sauce, with rice.
Besides the sukiyaki box lunches, volunteers were handing out bananas, onions, cartons of eggs and small hand-warmers at the park. Booths were set up for medical and other consultations.
Kenji Seino, who heads the meal program called Tenohasi, which means “bridge of hands,” said the number of people coming for meals is rising, with jobs becoming harder to find.
Multimillion-dollar celebration in Sydney
More than one million people are expected to crowd along Sydney’s waterfront for a multimillion-dollar celebration based around the themes of diversity and inclusion.
Organizers have said a rainbow waterfall will be a prominent feature of the New Year’s Eve party. More than 7,000 fireworks were launched from the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and a further 2,000 from the nearby Opera House.
It is the “party Sydney deserves,” Stephen Gilby, the city’s producer of major events and festivals, told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“We have had a couple of fairly difficult years; we’re absolutely delighted this year to be able to welcome people back to the foreshores of Sydney Harbour for Sydney’s world-famous New Year’s Eve celebrations,” he said.
In Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, organizers have arranged for a family-friendly fireworks display along the Yarra River as dusk falls before a second session at midnight.
The Pacific nation of Kiribati was the first country to greet the new year, with the clock ticking into 2023 one hour ahead of neighbours including New Zealand.
In Auckland, large crowds gathered below the Sky Tower, where a 10-second countdown to midnight preceded a fireworks display.
The celebrations in New Zealand’s largest city were well-received after COVID-19 forced them to be cancelled a year ago.
In Rome, New Year’s Eve began on a sombre note as the Vatican announced the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the German theologian who will be remembered as the first pope in 600 years to resign. He was 95.