Samoa: The difference a day makes

Samoa is moving from one time zone to another to faclilitate trade. And it's not the first nation to realise that time is political - and economic, says Simon Wilson.

What's Samoa doing?

It's cancelling 30 December for one year only. The Pacific island nation currently lies just to the east of the international date line and is the last place on earth to see the sun set each day. Now it is shifting itself to the other side of the imaginary north-south 'line'. Instead of being 21 hours behind the eastern coast of Australia, Samoa will be three hours ahead. Unfortunately for Samoans born on 30 December, there'll be no birthday this year: the nation is planning to leave its current time zone at just before midnight on Thursday 29 December and join the new one a split second later just after midnight on Saturday 31 December.

Why bother?

The government thinks it will help boost trade and other links with Australia and New Zealand. These account for more than half of Samoa's imports and a thumping 85%-plus of exports mostly coconut products and fish. However, the change will not make it any easier for Samoans to talk shop with Sydneysiders. When it's midday in Apia (the Samoan capital) it will still be 9am in eastern Australia (and 11am in New Zealand). Crucially though, it will be the same day of the week.

Why is that important?

"In doing business with New Zealand and Australia we're [currently] losing out on two working days a week," argues Samoa's prime minister Tuilaepa Sailele Mailielegaoi. "While it's Friday here, it's Saturday in New Zealand and Australia and when we're at church on Sunday they're already conducting business in Sydney and Brisbane." Businesses in Samoa and Australasia have welcomed the move. But some in Samoa's tourism industry are worried at losing their last-to-see-the-sunset selling-point.

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Does all this matter to non-Samoans?

Yes, in that it reverses a switch made in the other direction by the same small-but-canny island nation in 1892. Then (along with American Samoa) it moved from west to east of the date line in order to facilitate trade with the United States and Europe. The fact that it's jumping back again is a striking sign of the rise of the Asia-Pacific region. (Samoa made a similar move two years ago when it swapped from driving on the right to the left, like Australia, New Zealand and Japan.) Samoa's time switch is in that sense partly economic and partly political, much like the reasons bigger nations have for picking their own time zones.

For example?

Before 1949 China had five different time zones, reflecting its massive longitudinal span. The communists, however, put the whole country onto Beijing time a none-too-subtle statement of political intent that means vast swathes of the west of the country (still) endure long dark mornings and enjoy late light evenings. It also means there's a three and a half hour difference between neighbours Afghanistan and China the longest cross-border time gap in the world. Russia, by contrast, is far too wide to try and make do with one zone. Until last year it had 11, from its Baltic exclave Kaliningrad to the Siberian Far East.

What's changed?

Last spring the Kremlin decided to slim its zones down to nine, pulling several central regions back an hour to Moscow time and pulling the Far East Kamachatka and Chukotka regions back an hour (to eight hours) ahead to make it easier to talk to local officials. That sparked street demonstrations by locals angry at their over-mighty Muscovite masters and the new earlier nightfall. Meanwhile, this year each zone of Russia "sprang forward" an hour as usual but won't "fall back" in the autumn: the whole country is shifting to permanent daylight saving time with no more back and forth.

Is London's time zone still an advantage?

Absolutely, and one that is becoming more pronounced as the world economy becomes more globalised. Businesses based in Britain can talk easily to New York (five hours behind) from the early afternoon onwards. Hong Kong (and mainland China) are eight hours ahead; Japan is nine. Our financial markets are open for business at the end of East Asia's working day and also at the start of America's and there is all day to trade in Europe. By comparison, the 13 hours difference between New York and Hong Kong means one country is asleep while the other is awake. Greenwich Mean Time might no longer be the standard that defines all others internationally, but London continues to benefit from its business-friendly longitude.

What about Britain?

By the 1850s, Britain had become the first country to adopt a single 'mean time' as opposed to a range of local solar times. That was thanks to its early industrialisation and the growth of rail travel, which made standardisation necessary. Britain is not wide enough to need more than one time zone. But it is tall and thin enough and far enough from the equator for it to matter to have a periodic debate about which zone to adopt. For example, there was double summertime during World War II and an experiment with permanent GMT+1 in the late 1960s. Many English still favour a shift forward an hour for lighter evenings, allegedly saving energy, cutting crime and boosting health (see And lots of Scots dislike getting up in the dark for much of the year, citing road safety fears. The debate rolls on.

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.