What does it mean to have ‘been to’ a country?

I would class myself as ‘moderate to well travelled', having been to somewhere between 70-80 countries. It's one of those above-average numbers but nothing special. I can't remember the exact number though I would like to hit 100 some point in the next 3 years.

I recently had a debate about how to count countries and using what criteria. Indeed the “first woman to visit every country” (sort-of-but-not-really) Cassie De Pecol had at least a couple of countries where all she saw was the airport for 30 minutes while the plane was refuelling and then turned back around.

 

Quality, not Quantity

Though I have never met him, I have followed Stefan Krakowski from Rapid Travel Chai for a long time for his encyclopaedic level of knowledge on travel logistics in different countries. He put forward a good and lengthy argument to dispute Cassie De Pecol's claim to fame, but it really got me thinking about what aspects make a visit.

Part of the reason I don't like to count countries is its implication of a ‘ticking the box' exercise and its questionable social and economic contribution to wherever I am visiting. Aside from surpassing 100 countries and also the symbolic ‘every country' mark, I couldn't really care if I had visit 40 countries, 90 countries or even 140 countries. For me it's about whether I was satisfied with my visit.

What is satisfaction then? Hard to pinpoint and is different for everyone. I reached out to Stefan and asked him about his way of counting. He said:

For me, it is a visit where I don't feel I have to go back. I may want to go back, but I've seen what I really want to see to experience the country. I transited and overnighted Turkey many times before a road trip last October from Van in the east to Istanbul that I finally counted a visit. Liechtenstein I was content with a day visit.

What most serious travellers agree on is that a transit does not count. The Guinness World Records rules allow transits so those who take them seriously as an arbiter of travel allow them.

I found his self-imposed substantiation interesting. If I had overnighted in a country and had a couple of meals I personally would have counted it. It certainly would be a minimal and not very worthwhile visit, but I would have counted it nonetheless.

But it seemed clear that unless you are trying to break a Guinness World Record, there is no hard and fast rule.

 

Ever Changing Goal Posts

I visited Serbia and Montenegro, a singular country back in 2006. A couple of months later they separated into two different countries. Having not step foot into the Montenegro part was I entitled to claim to have have visited there? How about claiming to have been in Kosovo before they declared their independence from Serbia in 2008? To both of these I said no, so made another trip a couple of years ago.

Kotor Bay, Montenegro

Broadly recognised methods

The Traveler's Century Club and The Best Travelled  have their own well-defined guidelines about what counts. I personally don't agree with their minimum methods of counting which in the former involves standing on land outside your plane/train/ship but without having cleared immigration. The Best Travelled stipulates clearing passport control, or in places like the Schengen area where there are no border checks just standing in the country's territory would suffice. Could I really claim to have been to the United States if I had just stood outside the airport at Guam?

At the extreme case you don't have to go far just to see Baarle-Nassau/Baarle-Hertog in the south of The Netherlands. Just look at how complex the border system is. Could I really claim to have been to Belgium if I just stood in a tiny exclave?

Even houses and restaurants are built straddling the border! This particular house has two addresses, one Belgian and one Dutch.

A house built in both Belgium and The Netherlands
Credit: iamdanw, Licensed by Creative Commons 2.0

 

So going back to the title of this post, what does it take to have ‘been to' a country? I am in agreement with Stefan that a pure transit does not count. For me my rough guidelines are as follows:

  • Where applicable, need to have cleared passport control
  • Need to have stepped outside the airport or port (to exclude situations where you are transiting between airlines with no interline agreement)
  • Had at least one meal if crossing meal times
  • Be able to make at least few ‘intelligent' thoughts or questions based on a first-hand observation. E.g.
    • “I wonder which era influenced this building's architecture?”, or
    • “I've been waiting here 30 minutes. Why is this airport-to-city's public transportation infrastructure so crap?”

This is all clutching at straws though. In the end, unless you are trying to join some kind of membership like the two mentioned earlier, you are free to define it however you want, and most people will not care. I would much prefer to have a ‘good' visit.

What do you think? How would you draw the line on a visit to a country? Any suggestions welcome, the more original the better!

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Comments

  1. The main problem is that there is no definite list of what IS a country. So counting is kind of a pointless exercise. If you ask Israel, Palestine is not a country; if you ask China, Tibet and Taiwan are not countries. Countries are also defined by being geographically, and/or linguistically, and/or culturally different from another place; hence many consider Puerto Rico, Guam, and even Hawaii to be different countries than the USA. Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland are very different culturally, and have different governments, and even different names, but (FOR NOW) are one country. Zanzibar and Tanzania are considered the same country, yet you must clear passport control when flying from Tanzania to Zanzibar, so it’s often considered to be 2 different countries. This is also the same with parts of Borneo (I had this argument on the plane from Malaysia to Malaysian Borneo- my seatmate insisted Borneo is its own country, though technically it contains 3 different ones). And then there’s the issue you raised- what if countries split (Yugoslavia into 7 or 8, Czechloslovakia into 2, etc)? What if they consolidate- do you lose one? I count myself as having visited 72. Many people disagree with my count 🙂

    • Very valid points you raise! However I tried to skirt around the ‘what is a country’ part because of the emotional debates involved, but more about how to define the quality of a visit.

  2. For Saudi Arabia, it was transiting through Damman. We actually had to get off the aircraft and were bussed to the terminal where we waited an hour or so. At a TCC International meeting one of our guests (a Muslim) did not think that transit should count as a visit. However, I spent as much time as I desired on Saudi soil (as little as possible) and the visit was acceptable under TCC rules. At the time (years before 2018) Saudi Arabia was not in the business of granting general tourist VISAs.

  3. I like to have a meal or drink in a country before counting it. Definitely needs to be well away from the airport (or port). I also use this criteria to determine which US states I have visited (and Hawaii is definitely not a separate country 🙂 )

    • A whiff of the aroma of food is definitely a good measure. My recent trip to Georgia, the country, opened me up to so many culinary flavours I didn’t even know existed!

  4. We define a country on the basis of its universally recognition on the world map, not thorough people’s opinion. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia do not issue visa to tourists for decades, though unsure how it is today, because they do not want either outside interference or need tourists revenue. We continue to reference Hong Kong but it is part of China now and no longer an independent country, after 99 year lease from Britain that ended in 1997. Tibet is not a country as equivalent to Kashmir. But Taiwan is a recognized independent country. As for a quality of a visit, when I hear or read a person boasts how many countries he visits, above 60 countries, I am certain that he truly has little understanding of history, culture and cuisine of those host countries. I remember reading Lucky’s post on Xinjiang whereby he commented why there was strict security enforcement. He compared it to flying from east coast to west coast in US. Few commentators explained that there is Muslim conflict in the region. I have an impression that Lucky has little interest in learning more about the host countries he visited. Granted, he has changed his perception recently and makes effort to spend many days travelling on the ground. But for many years, he was adamant that his blog was more about the journey than the destination. I love reading his blog when he invites suggestions from his worldwide readers when he plans to visit a unique destination. I keep notes and utilize them when I am ready to visit that destination. If you do not interact and mingle with the native locals, it is not a quality visit. If you only communicate with employees at chain hotels and restaurants in touristy areas, the employees may be foreign workers but not native locals. I consider that a half baked quality visit.

    • Actually, that’s not true. Taiwan is only recognized by 19 UN members, it’s not “universally recognized.” (https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/which-countries-recognize-taiwan-as-a-country.html) And your statement “We define a country on the basis of its universally recognition on the world map, not thorough people’s opinion”…who is WE? The Olympic Committee, the UN, and the Montevideo Convention (and many others) have differing lists. Vatican City isn’t in the UN, but it’s a country; the US doesn’t recognize Taiwan, but it’s a country.
      Additionally, as someone who’ve lived in several countries, and visited many more, I know many people who’ve visited over 60, and most of them are inquisitive, interesting people. I met one person in Ecuador who, as a photographer, had visited over 100. Cheers 🙂

  5. In every country that I count as a visit, I must have at least done all the following: cleared immigration, send a postcard to myself, eat a meal, selfie with the country’s main landmark, and learn to say “you’re beautiful” in the country’s main language.

  6. If you are comparing a number with others, there may have to be rules. For myself, I have 4 ways to count.

    Method 1: any country, any separate entity, any length of time. I don’t really consider this my “country count” but it is the highest number. Examples, of places by this method include the Free City of Berlin pre 1990. This is because West Berlin was technically not part of Germany. It even had its own postage stamps. East Jerusalem would also be considered a country. So would Puerto Rico.

    Method 2: Most countries, most entities. I consider this my “country count”. Any way my foot is on land or even a pier counts. Overflight over a country’s airspace does not count. Non-country entities, such as Gibraltar count. So would Tristan da Cunha or Pitcairn Island, if I went there.

    Method 3: Like method 2 but only nations count. I do not use this method except as an exercise. This method would exclude double counting UK and Gibraltar.

    Method 4: Similar to method 2 except I must stay in a country for at least 12 hours, of which most of the time cannot be sleeping. I call it “number of countries visited for more than a brief time”.

    I have also counted countries that I have been to for more than 30 days spread over one or more visits. That number is the lowest and is not really a “number of countries” visited.

  7. I appreciate you having standards beyond transiting. That’s absurd.

    Now for me, I’ve heard it called “a National Geographic Moment” – you have to have some cultural experience in the country. Walk around a city center, go on a hike, have a ethnic meal, etc.

    Or looked at another way, you need to have some way of answering the question “What did you do in Country X” without using the word “just”:

    What’d you do in Saudi Arabia?
    Oh I just saw the airport?

    DENIED

  8. Early on when I was first starting to travel, someone at work came back from Alaska and said that was the 50th state that he visited. I thought about that and didn’t see that I wanted to go to every state. Then when I started to travel as part of tours there were people who kept track of the number of countries they visited or said that they were in the Century Club because they listed 100+ countries.

    To this day, I still have no clue about how many countries or states that I have visited. If I did, then I think that I would be missing the point about what travel is about.

    For me, ideally on a trip I would be spending all of it in one country where I could see different cities and meet the people there. A different trip a different country. When I would go on scuba diving trips, I might be on one island for 5-7 days then other parts of the country for another week, still 1 country. I have been to the Philippines on 4 different trips to about 5 different islands for diving or non diving trips but it still counts as 1 country. I have also been to the Peninsula of Antarctica….which is like saying that I have been to Key Largo so I have been to the USA. It just silly what counting countries visited have to do with travel. If anything it should be on the cities/regions and the amount of time spent there.

    I even would argue that spending the night sleeping in the city should be used. But under that method, cruises would not hold up very well because people only do excursions during the day and are back on the water at night.

  9. For states my rule is to have touched the soil outside of a place of transit and to have engaged in at least one transaction, which I define broadly. I am at 49 states and for one of them it involved a detour off the highway, a purchase of gas and a snack, and a brief word with the proprietor. I viewed that as good enough but wouldn’t regard just stepping out of an airport to be enough. You need some type of interaction or commerce. For cars and trains you actually need to get out and interact and not just pass through.

    I think the same generally about countries.

  10. What a great discussion. For me each country and visit has it’s own meter as to whether it counts or not. Spending an hour at BKK airport wouldn’t count normally, but then getting stuck there overnight might. It’s just an arbitrary decision in some cases. Whereas spending 8 hours on three different occasions in Dubai, w/ most of the time spent outside the airport eating, shopping and walking for sure counted.

  11. It’s an interesting discussion – I think counting countries is a rather pointless exercise.
    As your example Cassie shows, you can have been to every country, without really having BEEN there.
    Is it the amount of time spend? Or how open your mind is to the local culture? You might learn more about a country having a meal and talking with locals about their life at the airport for a few hours than when staying at a 5-star US chain hotel for a meeting for a few days, eating room-service, never talking to a local or learning anything about the country.
    It really comes down to what you want from travel: Do you want to “win” with a checklist? Do you travel to learn about different cultures?
    I want to learn about different countries and cultures. Some countries, having lived there or visited for decades, still don’t meet Stefan’s definition – I still want to go back to see more. Some countries, I’ve seen the major sights, wasn’t inspired by the culture and feel like “I’ve seen it”, others I have very little interest based on what I’ve read about the country and culture and have no plans to go…

  12. For the sake of simplicity, I figure a place qualifies as a country if they have a passport of their own. If the country splits up, you get a free bonus.
    As to visiting, I just go with having exited the airport, since I won’t do that unless I have a dead minimum of 8 hours free. It’s a simple system, but avoids the silly I-saw-the-airport-so-I-saw-the-country perspective.

  13. – Left the airport (and) gotten a passport stamp if applicable. I’d say overland transit wouldn’t count (eg Haneda to Narita, or Gatwick to Heathrow), but then again people do multihour-long stopovers. If you wan to be strict, you could say at least one ivernight/24hrs to suffice a visit.

    – I’d divide places based on subnations, like the Olympics. Hong Kong doesn’t include China, Guam doesn’t include the US. London probably shouldn’t include Wales, nevertheless the Cayman Islands. Then again, ‘country’ isn’t a political term, and you could count just the basic 196 UN set to be proper; adding territories and US states is just extra credit.

    – Divided countries don’t credit both. A visit to 1970s Moscow doesn’t necessitate a visit to Armenia or Uzbekistan imo.

    • What about divided countries where you entered the territory in question (went to Soviet ‘Stans)? Or how about visiting the land that is now South Sudan (and not visiting what is now Sudan)?

  14. My rule: did I have a memorable experience there? Leaving the airport, if only for a brief period, but eating a wonderful meal or sharing conversation at a bar with a local would count…but leaving the airport to check into an airport hotel and order something from a generic hotel restaurant would not. I went to Rome once for 24 hours but didn’t see anything within city limits so I don’t count that trip even though a lot of people would say I indisputably visited.

    I am not concerned with visiting every country, or even X number of countries. I spend my time visiting places I want to go to, and sometimes that means returning to a new corner of a country I formerly visited or even returning to the same city I’ve been to before (or, shocker, even traveling without leaving my own country!).

    Travel is about the experience. If there’s no experience, I can’t personally say I traveled somewhere.

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