My passport expires in 2020, but it’s almost certainly going to be filled by then. I’ve even stuck post-it notes onto the few empty pages left to save them from an Immigration officer’s careless stamp. But no matter how much I love flicking through the pages and admiring the ink, I don’t ask how many countries are there?
I don’t count countries.
I see a lot of travel bloggers, travel Instagrammers and travel enthusiasts with a running total on their websites or profiles, ’27 countries and counting!’ And I think it’s great if you want to do that. It’s a great way to quantify the places you’ve travelled to, it’s satisfying to hit the big landmark numbers and it’s good motivation if you want to see ‘all the countries in the world’.
I just don’t think it’s the only way to measure travel (if it can be measured at all). And it’s certainly not for me. You’ll never see a running total on here or on any social media page I’m on and here’s why:
How many countries are there?
Well, first this depends where you live. If you ask Google how many countries are there, it will tell you 196. That is, if you’re counting Taiwan. Many countries, including the US, do not officially recognise Taiwan as a country.
Next, it depends on what counter you are using. The above 195 figure is officially recognised by the UN and includes 193 members and two non-member observer states (Palestine and the Holy See aka Vatican City).
However, it’s different game in the world of sport. Countries do not always have to be independent to compete. There are 206 Olympic Nations who can compete and parade in the opening ceremony. How many countries are there in the FIFA World Cup? 211 countries are eligible to enter.
Interestingly, the Olympics has Team GB, but England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all compete separately in the FIFA World Cup.
If you’re a keen traveller, you may have heard of the Traveler’s Century Club (TCC). This is a club for people who have visited 100 countries and territories or more. Their list contains 314 such territories, including sovereign states, exclaves, island groups and much more.
So, there are multiple lists you can use, which vary from official lists to personal opinion. And, of course, these are constantly changing with history…
What counts as a country?
If I’ve been to Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have I been to four countries, or one, or both? If I’ve been to Hong Kong and Macau, have I been to China? Is Korea one country at war or two countries, North and South? What about Israel and Palestine? Kosovo? Gibraltar?
The first measure we reach for to define what ‘counts’ as a country is how it is governed. Yet, if there is one thing I have learnt from living in Hong Kong it’s that Hong Kong is definitely not China. But it technically is and technically isn’t. One country, two systems… and that official definition doesn’t always work out.
Politics is complicated.
Is a country at war one country or two? East Germany and West Germany were two countries once. If you visited both during that time, have you visited one country, or two? Is that an extra number on your country counter?
I don’t believe that politics is the sole, defining measure of what a country is; I believe that locals’ shared opinions and shared culture play a much bigger part. If you ask a Hong Konger if they live in China, they will say no.
Then again, one huge debate that I always manage to get dangerously roped into is that of Ireland and Northern Ireland. I’ve met people from Northern Ireland who identify as British, others who identify as Irish and others who prefer Northern Irish.
And who am I, as an English woman, to give my opinion on what I believe counts as Ireland or Northern Ireland? Even though the UK is my home country and Northern Ireland is part of that country, it’s not my place to say. It’s up to the people who live in that place to define where they live and it’s difficult because not everyone agrees.
Some countries are big, some countries are small.
I’ve been to Florida, so does that mean that I’ve ‘been to’ and ‘seen’ the US? Been there, done that? I’ve been to Beijing, Shenzhen, Macau and I lived in Hong Kong for five years, does that mean that I can strike China off my list? Can I add it to my country counter in the same way I can add The Vatican?
The landscape, people and culture of Alaska are not the same as that in New York, or in Hawaii. Even in our home countries there are places we may not have visited or seen, there is history and culture we may not have learnt about, local food we may not have tasted.
I have a scratch-off map that I love to look at, but I can’t bring myself to scratch off the whole of Australia just because I’ve been to Melbourne. I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, but how can I scratch off Borneo?
What counts as ‘seeing a country’ anyway?
I’ve been to Turkey twice; a week in Bodrum when I was 19 and a week in Antalya when I was 20. I literally sat on a beach all day, partied at night and mostly just ate Western food. I had a great time with two of my best and oldest friends… but did I ‘see’ Turkey? I personally don’t believe so.
Leaving Hong Kong this December, I had a 20-hour layover in Doha, Qatar. In the accumulated stopovers I’d had in the Middle East over the years, in Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, I had never once left the airport. I had seen these places out of windows, but not experienced them.
This time in Doha I spent the whole day in the city, exploring the souq, gazing out at the skyline, walking around the beautiful Museum of Islamic Art, eating delicious foods I had never tasted before, buying trinkets at the markets. In such a short space of time, I felt like I really got a taste of the city and of Qatar. Then again, maybe that was just my perception.
There’s a difference between holidaying and travelling, though neither are ‘incorrect’ ways to travel. I would never turn my nose up at a lovely week relaxing by the pool of a nice hotel. Sometimes you just need some sun and somewhere to just be.
It’s all tourism, but the experiences are totally different. And if you’ve holidayed without eating local food, talking to local people and seeing the sights, it’s up for debate whether you have ‘seen’ the true colours of that country at all.
Borders are just man-made constructs
At the end of the day, when all the above arguments are through, the truth remains that countries are only man-made constructs and humans are simply animals. We have built walls and fences, we have drawn lines on maps, we have travelled and we have colonised.
Other animals may protect their territory, but we’re the only ones who recognise the borders.
Of course, for organisation’s sake, countries and governments are necessary. Though, as with recent history, are they for protecting those within or for keeping others out? When you think about it, borders are quite sad things. Fighting over land and rules and regulations about immigration, migration and refugees even more so.
Because how many countries are there, in reality? None. Zero. Just as the sky belongs to no one and the oceans belong to no one, the land belongs to no one.
Why I don’t count countries
There’s been a lot of ‘countroversy’ recently surrounding Cassie De Pecol, who has officially broken records for being the first documented woman to travel to every country, the first American woman to travel to every country and the youngest American to travel to every country, at 27 years old.
Cassie’s done this in the name of education, sustainability and female empowerment. Her intentions are good and her achievements are amazing. But there are a lot of questions. What counts as ‘documented’? Is she truly the first American woman to travel to every country? Just because others who came before her weren’t counting, does that make her the first?
There are no clear answers when it comes to country counting and I don’t think there should be. Instead of asking how many countries are there, we should be asking other questions. Like ‘How is Sicily different to Italy?’ or ‘Where else is there to explore in my home country that I haven’t seen?’ or ‘How can I better understand the culture of the people who live in this country?’
Flipping through my passport brings back lots of amazing memories of my travels. I see my Hong Kong working visas in there, stamps from my trips to Turkey and to the US. Although, my trips to EU member states are noticeably absent (for now). Perhaps, in the future, I’ll have a stamp in my passport for visiting Italy, or even Scotland.
Counting countries is like aiming for an ever-moving target in a huge grey area. In the end, how many countries are there? Who cares!
And that’s why I don’t count countries.