New Years 2021: Thousands crowd to watch New Zealand fireworks, but streets deserted, celebrations cancelled around globe

Thousands flocked to downtown Auckland at midnight to watch the annual New Year's fireworks display, a stark contrast to scenes across the ditch where COVID-19 remains a concern. 

As the clock hit 12, those in the City of Sails - and many watching the event from around the globe - witnessed a spectacular five-minute fireworks and lighting display on Sky City's Sky Tower and on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.

An extra 40 searchlights were added to the Harbour Bridge light show to give it a "special dimension", all powered by a mix of solar, battery and peer-to-peer technology. 

The night sky was also lit up in bright colours at other Kiwi centres as people culminated at music festivals and town events with live entertainment.

With no COVID-19 in the community, New Zealand has no restrictions in place, allowing New Year's plans to go ahead as normal.

New Year's celebrations in Auckland.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland.
New Year's celebrations in Auckland. Photo credit: Getty.

But it's been a different story in other parts around the world.

Blue and gold fireworks soared into the sky above the Sydney Opera House as they do every New Year's Eve, but the harbour below was a deserted ghost town.

No light show was to illuminate Beijing from the top of the TV tower. The lions of London's Trafalgar Square were barricaded off, as was Red Square in Moscow and Madrid's Puerta del Sol. In Rome, crowds would not assemble in St Peter's, the Pope would lead no Mass, and revelers would not make their yearly dive into the Tiber.

Some cities planned, like Sydney, to launch fireworks over empty streets. Others, such as London and Singapore, just called their displays off. Paris, Rome and Istanbul were under curfew.

The New Year's Eve countdown ball was set to drop on Broadway. But in place of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in Times Square, the audience would be a pre-selected group of nurses, doctors and other key workers, their families kept six feet apart in socially distanced pens.

With more than 1.7 million people dead and 82 million infected around the globe since last New Year's Eve - yet hope that new vaccines can help tame the pandemic - the year ended unlike any other in memory. Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year's Eve address as German chancellor, said as much.

"I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy. And never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope."

Germany banned the sale of fireworks to discourage crowds. Berlin police would "punish violators consistently", authorities said.

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic originated a year ago, thousands were expected to gather at landmarks across the city centre to count down to 2021. Some said they were being cautious, but not particularly worried.

"Safety is the priority," said Wuhan resident Wang Xuemei, 23, a teacher.

In Australia, where Sydney's fireworks annually serve as the world's first big visual display of the new year, gatherings were banned and internal borders shut. Most people were barred from Sydney's downtown.

"What a hell of a year it's been," said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state, which includes Sydney. "Hopefully 2021 will be easier on all of us."

New Year's celebrations in Sydney.
New Year's celebrations in Sydney. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Sydney.
New Year's celebrations in Sydney. Photo credit: Getty.

The virus did not stop North Korea from staging its celebration in Pyongyang. State media showed revellers in face masks filling the main square for a concert and fireworks.

Performers - none of the them wearing protective masks - sang and danced on a stage decorated with a large, colourful "2021" sign. Costumes included traditional Korean "hanbok" dresses and sequined dance suits.

Giant snowmen characters clapped along as performers sang songs with patriotic refrains such as "glory to the general Kim Jong-un" and "I like my country the best".

North Korea has said it has no confirmed cases of coronavirus, though it has tested thousands of people, and the government has imposed near total border lockdowns and other strident measures to prevent an outbreak.

Officials in South Korea and the United States have cast doubt on the claim that North Korea has had no cases.

Major Taiwanese cities have scaled back New Year's Eve events and are telling people to watch fireworks and other festivities at home, after the island's first case of the highly infectious coronavirus variant originally discovered in Britain.

The cities of Kaohsiung, Tainan, Taichung, Taoyuan, Chiayi and Keelung all said late on Wednesday they would cancel public attendance at events like fireworks displays, and have asked people to watch at home online and on television.

However, the Taipei city government said on Thursday people could still watch events live, the highlight of which is fireworks set off from the outside of Taipei 101, once briefly the world's tallest building.

New Year's celebrations in Taiwan.
New Year's celebrations in Taiwan. Photo credit: Getty.
New Year's celebrations in Taiwan.
New Year's celebrations in Taiwan. Photo credit: Getty.

But it has capped attendance at the main viewing spot next to the city government at 40,000, half of the 80,000 it had originally planned, with attendees having to register their personal details and wear masks.

In Madrid's Puerta del Sol, where Spaniards typically count down to midnight by stuffing grapes into their mouths at each clock strike, police dragged barriers to keep people out. Jose Angel Balsa, a 61-year-old retiree, said he would spend the evening "with family, just the four of us at home, holding lots of video calls and hoping for this to end as soon as possible."

In Britain, under ever tighter restrictions to fight a new, more contagious variant of the virus, official billboards instruct the public to "see in the New Year safely at home".

Italy's bars and restaurants were closed, and a curfew imposed for 10pm, Pope Francis cancelled plans to lead New Year's Eve and New Year's Day services because of a flare-up of his sciatica, the Vatican said.

At A la Ville de Rodez, an upmarket delicatessen in Paris, manager Brice Tapon sent customers home with packages of foie gras, truffles and pate for groups of two or three. Rules forbid more than six adults to gather around the dinner table.

One of the customers, Anne Caplin, said she would "stuff myself with foie gras, champagne and all this food".

"And I'll stay home."

Reuters / Newshub.