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.
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.
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!