Illustration by Alicia Paauwe for an article on counting countries

Counting Countries Dilutes the Real Meaning of Travel

Putting all the places you've visited into a neat little statistic can be helpful, but it simplifies the experience of immersing yourself in other cultures.
May 14, 2021
7 mins read

Picture this: You’re at a bar, listening to someone talk about how well-traveled they are. “I’ve been to 20 countries!” they exclaim. However, upon diving deeper, you soon realize that this arbitrary number may not be a true signifier of how much of the world they’ve seen. They reveal that their “visit” to Austria encompassed a two-hour layover in Vienna, and that Mexico only made the list via their visit to a Cancun resort as a teenager.

Alas, we arrive at the dicey morals of “country counting” — a practice that has been used by many to legitimize their claims as world travelers.

This practice has been used by travel bloggers and ordinary citizens alike for decades and is a convenient way to track how far you’ve traveled. It puts all of your foreign experiences into a nice, neat statistical package. You no longer have to describe the cities, regions or cultures you’ve gallivanted through, but instead, as the aforementioned bar patron does, you can simply sound off with your mightily impressive country number.

Obviously, simplifying the diverse makeups of each country around the globe has far-reaching consequences — and it erases the unique identity of the jurisdictions that don’t technically count as countries. Your country list does not represent where you’ve been, just the arbitrary boundaries you’ve crossed.

That being said, the practice does have a place in travel. It can be incredibly difficult to describe everywhere you’ve been, especially when you’ve made an effort to visit an assortment of locales. Humans love putting labels on things, and your traveling experiences are no different. Country counting can be a useful tool to efficiently give a broad picture of your adventures.

A Method of Contention 

Someone’s country count is the same as any other arbitrary statistic used to judge someone. From the number of people slept with to the number of degrees someone possesses, society loves to use numbers to categorize people — despite the stories behind those numbers being drastically different.

In this case, the number of countries visited lets strangers get an idea of the “level” of traveler you are. Being a world traveler is something many envy, and a high count allows you to claim that title without much need for explanation.

This method is most notoriously used in the travel blogging community, where your country count serves as a way to build credibility. Blogger Lana Cohen comments on this in a piece for Travel Savvy Girl.

“Someone’s number of countries visited serves as some sort of ‘street cred’ (aka credentials) of how experienced they might be, or perhaps how trustworthy with advice,” she writes.

On the other side of the coin, a fervent sect of bloggers and travelers despises the practice. They claim it cheapens the experience of travel, ridding it of the nuance that defines the locales. Blogger Kimmie Connor subscribes to this belief and explains why in an article for Adventures and Sunsets.

“In the race to get the most countries, a lot of potentially incredible experiences are thrown to the wayside for the idea that you could use that time to rack up your country numbers instead,” she writes.

What Constitutes a Country?

One of the core issues with country counting is in the name: the definition of a country.

The way people think of countries or nation-states is a relatively new phenomenon — and is not a great way to count the cultures and groups that came before the borders that now surround them. You can visit a country for a day or even a year and not fully grasp the range of people within.

You can see this most easily with a country like the United States, where people from, say, Texas practice a drastically different way of life than those in Alaska. Yet, if you were to visit either one of those states, you could tally the whole of the country on your count.

There is also the matter of criteria to be considered a “country.” Many reference the 193 members of the United Nations, but this brings up issues surrounding unrecognized countries. Places like Kosovo or Taiwan, which are declared countries but not accepted into the organization, can’t be counted while using the U.N. as a checklist.

Dozens of guidelines developed by groups and individuals can help you build a more comprehensive “country” list, going as high as the Travelers Century Club’s 875 destinations.

While this variance in eligibility can make a country list that is catered to each traveler, it also proves why the idea is rooted in problematic territory. A country’s borders do not define the people within it, and if you have to include nearly 900 destinations to include everyone, then why even practice this method at all?

How To Use Country Counting

Despite its many faults, country counting is not something you have to avoid entirely. As previously mentioned, your number will help you and others define your traveling credentials in an efficient manner.

The key to using country counting is self-awareness. If your count is 23, but six of those were layovers or brief drive-throughs, make sure to include that when sharing it. It’s still interesting to sleep in a Tokyo airport terminal, and there’s an argument to be made that those experiences should be included in your world-traveling stats. However, you must also be conscious that saying you “visited” Japan is a bit hyperbolic.

Don’t put too much pressure on your count, either. Your criteria can be whatever you want, but make sure to not restrain yourself to arbitrary lists of U.N. members or travel blogger guidelines. Your experiences speak for themselves, so let your country count do so too.

Country counting can be a tool you use to measure your experiences, but don’t let it define them in the first place. Blogger Chris Blachut says it best in a blog for The Unconventional Route, discussing his juvenile obsession with the method.

“The difference is we don’t go to new places out of a desire to brag about bagging it to friends, compete with other country counters, tick some box, or fulfill some unmet inner need,” he writes. “We go because of a true respect for and curiosity about that country.”

Drew Goretzka, Michigan State University

Writer Profile

Drew Goretzka

Michigan State University
Journalism, focus on International Reporting

Telling a good story is the key to changing the world, and I hope to do just that. Currently studying at Michigan State University and currently deployed to Kosovo with the Michigan Army National Guard.

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