SYDNEY - Australia is gearing up to celebrate its first restriction-free New Year's Eve after two years of COVID disruptions, with more than a million revellers expected to flock to Sydney's harbourfront and watch an elaborate fireworks display.
Sydney is one of the world's first major cities to welcome in the New Year and draws huge TV audiences around the world, with a public countdown and fireworks display over its iconic Opera House.
"This New Year's Eve we are saying Sydney is back as we kick off festivities around the world and bring in the New Year with a bang," said Clover Moore, Lord Mayor of Sydney.
Lockdowns at the end of 2020 and a surge in Omicron cases at the end of 2021 led to crowd restrictions and reduced festivities. However, curbs on celebrations have been lifted this year after Australia, like many countries around the world, re-opened its borders and removed social distancing restrictions.
A rainbow of colour will light up Sydney Harbour, with 2,000 fireworks to be launched from the four sails of the Sydney Opera House and 7,000 fireworks from more positions on the Sydney Harbour Bridge than ever before.
For the first time in 12 years, fireworks will be launched from four building rooftops to frame the spectacular show, the organisers said.
Prior to the pandemic, over a million people would join the festivities on the ground in Sydney as a billion spectators tuned in from other parts of the world.
Paris will stage its first New Year fireworks since 2019, after the 2020 and 2021 editions were cancelled due to COVID. A 10-minute firework show is set to kick off at midnight, with 500,000 people expected to gather on the famous Champs-Elysees avenue to watch it.
Elsewhere, the mood was not so celebratory.
Malaysia's government cancelled its New Year countdown and fireworks event at Dataran Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur after flooding across the nation displaced tens of thousands of people and a landslide killed 31 people this month.
The country's famous Petronas Twin Towers said it would pare down its celebration with no performances or fireworks.
In China, many people reflected online that a wave of COVID-19 infections since the country switched to living with the virus from a strict policy aimed at eradicating outbreaks had ruined the chances of a celebratory mood.
"This virus should just go and die, can not believe this year I can not even find a healthy friend that can go out with me and celebrate the passage into the New Year", wrote one user based in eastern Shandong province.
Others expressed hope the New Year would herald China's return to pre-pandemic life.
"I lived and worked under COVID throughout 2022... I hope 2023 is when everything can go back to what it was before 2020," said one user based in the neighbouring province of Jiangsu.
Dozens of cities in Croatia, including the capital Zagreb, cancelled New Year fireworks after pet lovers warned about the damaging effects of noise and gases on animals and people, calling for more environmentally-aware celebrations.
The result is that the Adriatic town of Rovinj will replace fireworks with laser shows and Zagreb with confetti, visual effects and music. The port town of Rijeka will re-direct funds allocated for fireworks to animal care associations, the authorities said.
(Reporting by Stella Qiu in Sydney, Chu Mei Mei in Kuala Lumpur, Ingrid Melander in Paris, Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo; Writing by Neil Fullick; Editing by Kim Coghill)