I could have travelled through Germany on my way from south to north. But when given the chance to add one more country to my list of “been there done that”s, the temptation was too great.
Earlier this summer, I visited Luxembourg – the small almost-city-state wedged between Germany, Belgium and France. Its main city, imaginatively named Luxembourg City, is best known as the second capital of the European Union and is pretty much synonymous with the whole country. Luxembourg could also be dubbed the foreign capital of Europe: almost half of its inhabitants are foreign workers, lured into the country for its lucrative salaries and… No, that’s it, it’s just a money thing. Because really, there isn’t much to see in Luxembourg.
The only reason I found myself in the 7th smallest country in Europe (number 28 on the worldly scale!) was because it was kind of on my route. I was travelling from Munich to Hamburg, and looking at the map I said, Hmm, I could visit Luxembourg on the way.
I re-routed under the ruse that it’d break up my hitchhiking plan nicely; but in reality, I was definitely thinking that my three-night visit would allow me to tick the country off of “The List”.
There are currently 193 sovereign countries in the world. Or that’s as close to truth as you can get; these 193 countries are all United Nations member states, and this is the figure that we mostly refer to when we ask the question, “How many bloody countries are there actually??”
(Sometimes the UN figure is 195, including two observer states Palestine and the Holy See which is a state in the Vatican – which, funny enough, itself is not a member of the UN.)
But as anyone who’s read past 6th grade geography knows, geopolitics are not always as straight-forward as the country borders drawn up by colonialists. (Seriously, past-century world powers?) There are many places that are not included in the UN list: from currently un-recognised countries such as Kosovo or Taiwan to autonomous regions like Greenland (Denmark) or Kurdistan (Iraq) and disputed territories like Abkhazia (Georgia).
So there are many lists with different figures floating about. The Traveler’s Century Club, a non-profit organisation for travellers who have visited more than 100 territories, list 327 territories on the site. ‘Although some are not actually countries in their own right, they have been included because they are removed from the parent country’, the page explains.
Many travellers keep a checklist of the countries they’ve been to – some even measure their expertise on travel based on that mythical number. You might see “their number” mentioned in their author bios or Instagram profiles. If they wanna be a real dick about it, they’ll probably put it up in their Tinder profiles, too.
The Problem with Country Counting
There are a few people who have visited every country in the world, from avid travellers to performers, professionals and all kinds of wanderers. Hell, a lot of long-time foreign correspondents probably have even the most prolific globetrotters beat.
And all the power to them; between strict visa regulations, limited travel options and even safety concerns, visiting every country in the world is not as easy task and it is definitely something that you are allowed to feel proud about.
But the number of countries visited is not a measure of expertise or excellence. The people who claim that it matters above all else look probably like me fighting with my best friend on the third grade when at six countries she was two ahead of me. (Since then she’s got a crippling fear of aviation and an unrelated reluctance to travel at all so WHO’S WINNING NOW, SARA??)
Someone who’s been to every country in the world might know a lot about the logistics of travel – but can they give you accurate advice on solo female travel safety on destination? Do they know the best hostel hacks? Can they recommend their favourite restaurant – when they’ve only had time to dine in one?
It’s impossible to become an expert on a country even if you spent weeks or months there, let alone a few days. And even advice on general travel might fall short. People who visit every country in the world are often on some sort of a mission and similarly to Everest climbers, sponsored by big brands and backed by a network of foreign contacts and acquaintances – far removed from the struggles that regular tourists experience on their holiday.
If a tree falls and no one is around to hear – did you still visit every country in the world?
Many sources have worked to compile lists of people who have visited every country in the world. As if this feat is not enough, people seem to now be clambering over themselves for superlatives: the fastest, the cheapest, the youngest…
In 2017, Cassie De Pecol made headlines for being the “first woman to visit every country in the world”. The words “the first woman on record” was quickly added to the title after online backlash stating previous similar feats by other women. (Guinness World Records at least stated that De Pecol was the fastest person to travel to every sovereign state as well as the fastest female to do so until that record was beat by Taylor Demonbreun in 2018.)
But this is a good question – how many travellers go unnoticed, just because their trips have not been thoroughly Instagrammed?
As the Instagram influencer Jessica Nabongo is closing on her goal to become the first black woman to travel to every country in the world, she’s been caught in a riptide of backlash after a woman named Woni Spotts stepped into the spotlight and claimed she already held Nabongo’s title. She started her travels decades ago with a documentary film crew and visited her last country, Turkey, late in 2018. While Nabongo’s team has discredited Spotts’ claim as unreliable, she’s provided proof that has lead to many organisations – including the aforementioned Traveler’s Century Club – to acknowledge her claim to have visited every country in the world.
“I guess they would discredit Amelia Earhart then,” she said. “So many people have traveled all over the world, like Josephine Baker, my own father’s friends were dancers and entertainers and they actually lived all over the world and you can’t find any of those people on social media. They’ve lived overseas all their lives, but life goes on outside of social media. Some people just don’t post,” Spotts says in an interview for Travel Noire.
I wonder how many others like her fall through the cracks – people who don’t need the spotlight and who take pictures just for family photo albums and not for social media. A few years ago, I read the biography of a famous Finnish foreign correspondent, who recalled “completing” the list of countries three times, visiting a new country every time one was created. I bet there are a lot of people out there who have been to every country in the world but never told the masses.
There is one more problem: country counting stinks of privilege.
International travel, in general, is one of the most privileged things we can do: to have the money, means and freedom to just book a trip to another country must be absolutely wild to some people whose disabilities stop them from doing the same; who have children or family members to take care of; who are scraping by paycheck to paycheck to just make rent.
In addition, international exploration is simply easier for certain people from a geographical point of view. As a European, I’ve visited most European countries. That’s not even comparable to the states in the US since the country is so much more vast than little old Europe. And if you live somewhere with terrible flight connections or bad infrastructure, that’s adding another obstacle on your journey.
And all this still doesn’t even take passport privilege into account. What if there’s a will but simply no way? Most Europeans, me included, are incredibly lucky to be born in countries that have relatively good foreign relations, thus granting us visa-free or at least relatively easy access to most countries.
(If you’ve ever wondered about this, check Passport index – currently the strongest passport in the world is United Arab Emirates, granting access to the biggest number of countries without a visa or with a visa on arrival. My dear Finland’s very close to the top, too, at a shared second with Luxembourg and Spain.)
Show me an American who’s visited 40 countries and it’s like, cool, well done. Show me an Iranian, a Kosovan or a Pakistani who’s done the same and my mind will be blown.
Where do I stand?
As I’m sitting in a hostel common room in Baku, Azerbaijan, writing this (on a couch with a rather Soviet level of comfort, might I add), my “Countries Been” app tells me I’m currently in my 46th country. If all goes to plan and I fly to Israel in November, I’ll “tick off” 50 countries before the end of the year.
(Seems like that sidetrack to Luxembourg did pay off in the end.)
That’s cool, and that’s all there is to it.
I don’t really care for country counting. Well, I guess I care enough to keep count; I glance at the app every couple of months to tick the countries I’ve last visited and check a few new ones I suddenly feel like touring. But I like to know the figure more for my own curiosity than for any public measurement. My claim to fame is flimsy at best, anyway: among my 46, I count the Vatican and Kosovo (UN furiously frowns at me), and I count Canada even though I’ve only spent 21 hours in Toronto, and I don’t count Argentina even though I spent a full day on their side of the Iguazu Falls. Look, I don’t know either.
I am not a speedy traveller; maybe that’s why counting countries doesn’t phase me much. And this one time that I did actually try to actively work towards growing my list, it gloriously backfired: my trip to Luxembourg was notoriously shadowed by failed hitchhiking attempts in the rain, expensive last-minute hotels, missed buses and crying in youth hostels. It’s almost like the universe wanted to put me back in my place: don’t get cocky, kid.
Country counting can be fun if you let The List function as a sort of a bucket list – an arrowhead pointing you towards the next adventure. But if you’re just trying to “do” as many countries as you can, you might be trading enjoyment for simple accomplishment – and travelling should definitely not feel like a performance.
Your country count doesn’t define your trip. Your stories do.
And if you count airports, you can just show yourself right out.
Do you count countries that you’ve travelled to? What do you think of country counting?