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april 1 -> what really counts in travel?

Robert Major was obsessed with the number of countries that he had visited.  On the bus ride from Bonito to Iguazu Falls, we had gotten into a spirited, but light-hearted discussion about what countries “counted” and which countries didn't.  (Initially impressed by our total, he later expressed skepticism at some of our inclusions: “Hong Kong was British before 1997, and Chinese after 1997.  It was always a colony of some other country, and shouldn't count.”)  In fact, Robert was in competition with a friend back home.  In the next few days, he would be visiting two new countries.  He was already planning to send text messages to taunt his friend as he added to his total: 

“Argentina #45 J!” 

“Paraguay #46 J!” 

Robert isn't the only one.  Counting countries is the most natural of pastimes for travel junkies.  Most know how many countries they have visited.  They have a list somewhere, secreted in a notebook or on a computer.  Like how many men or women one has slept with, the number of countries one has visited is generally not revealed for fear of eliciting laughter (“So few!”), or jealousy (“So many!”)  Only when someone else has blurted out their total is it acceptable to reveal your own (naturally, higher) total.  On the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, a sort of digital message board where backpackers share information, arrogant travelers are forever sneaking their total into postings.  Someone asks, “Which country in the world do people think is the most culturally interesting?” And a travel boor replies, “Having visited more than 100 countries…” 

So how many countries are there in the world?  This seems a simple enough question, but it is actually difficult to answer.  It also often involves taking a political stance on the independence, or lack thereof, of certain areas.  How about the number of countries with UN membership (191)?  Not a bad start, but this excludes numerous island nations too small for a bureaucracy (Nauru, for example.)  It also excludes Palestine, the Vatican/Holy See, and Taiwan.  The CIA keeps a separate list of “sovereign states” which includes all the UN members, plus Taiwan (a political decision) and the Vatican, plus six “de-facto independent” states (including such well-visited places as Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh,) plus Palestine and Western Sahara, for a total of 201.  This list excludes “various disputed territories” that are neither mass-recognized, nor de-facto independent, such as Jubaland and Puntland in Somalia, or Kosovo in Serbia and Montenegro, or Cabinda in Angola. 

None of these lists includes Scotland, which has no UN representative, but has a national boundary, its own parliament, and a fair degree of autonomy.  Should Scotland not be counted as a country because it is part of Great Britain?  The Scots certainly think of Scotland as a country, as do the Welsh Wales.  How about the continent of Antarctica?  According to the Antarctic Treaty, it is owned by no country, though seven nations claim chunks of it.  So is Antarctica a country-less continent (0), a country-continent (1), or a continent of seven countries?  Should we not count Hong Kong, which was previously a British Colony and now a Special Administrative Region of China?  How about the issue of Taiwan?  The Taiwanese think that Taiwan is a country, but the Chinese call Taiwan “a renegade province.”  Does visiting the Falkland Islands (Las Islas Malvinas) count as Argentina, the UK, or something completely different? 

Any potential inclusions creates their own problems.  If you treat Hong Kong as a country, you should count any other colonies as countries.  And if you treat Scotland and Wales as countries, is it really such a large step to treat the individual states of the federalized USA, or the individual federalized provinces of Canada as “countries?”  This madness could continue until one was forced to “count” states, provinces, counties, and municipalities...and so on ad infinitum. 

The CIA World Factbook also has a list of “countries” ranked according to land area.  This list includes 262 “countries.”  The jump from 201 to 262 comes almost completely in the form of small islands or island chains, such as the Coral Sea Islands, or the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands. 

The Traveler's Century Club (TCC) of the USA takes an interesting approach.  Their official list of 315 ‘countries' includes many that “are not actually countries in their own right, [but] have been included because they are removed from [the] parent [country], either geographically, politically, or ethnologically.”  A few examples will illustrate their criteria.  The USA is broken up into three ‘countries:' the continental USA, Hawaii, and Alaska.  Tasmania is split from Australia, as is Lord Howe Island.  The Indonesian archipelago is divided into numerous island groups: Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, the Lesser Sundas, Irian Jaya, and Kalimantan.  Distant colonial or territorial possessions are counted as ‘countries:' Pitcairn Island, St. Helena, and other British colonies are included; as are Greenland (Denmark), the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador), and the Balearic Islands (Spain.)  To join, a prospective member must have visited at least 100 of these 315 places. 

So are the well-traveled members of the TCC exaggerating their totals?  Their definition of what “counts” is certainly very loose, but it has some merit.  No one would argue that Hawaii is geographically distant from mainland USA.  Ethnically, the Melanesians of Irian Jaya are distinct from the Indo-Malays of Sumatra, though both are Indonesian.  Politically, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Island are largely autonomous.  According to the TCC, these differences make these places worthy of visiting and therefore, the TCC includes them as “countries.”  Furthermore, some of these distant territorial possessions are incredibly difficult to get to (the travel writer, Simon Winchester, once struggled for weeks to land a foot on the British island of Diego Garcia, unsuccessfully.)  Certainly intrepid travelers should be rewarded for their efforts.    

There are certainly some problems with the TCC approach.  Why are the 12,000 islands of Indonesia split up, while the 7,000 islands of Philippines are not?  Why are the two emirates of the United Arab Emirates treated as two ‘countries' (Dubai and Abu Dhabi), while the 50 states of the United States are not treated as 50?  And splitting Turkey into two ‘countries:' European Turkey (Istanbul), and Asian Turkey (everything else) seems arbitrary and ridiculous.  The other problem is that the dominance of islands in the total only increases in their calculation of the total number of countries.  Most colonies and places geographically distant from the parent nation are, after all, islands. 

Does any of this really matter?  Does a person who has visited 60 countries necessarily have a more open mind than someone who has never left their own country?  The answer is resoundingly no.  On this journey we have met a lot of people who have visited dozens of countries and did not appear to have learned much except the name of the local beer brand.  Traveling may broaden your horizons but it does not necessarily broaden your mind.  The risk of counting countries is that travelers may find themselves more interested in their total than in actually learning something about the places that they are visiting.  (A 10-day Caribbean cruise might hit 8 TCC “countries,” but what has really been learned or experienced?)

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