Usually it’s a civil debate. Sometimes just a brief, frank and cordial diplomatic exchange. Although on a few occasions it has gotten downright, dare I say it, territorial, between a few lesser intellects or overly patriotic nationalists. Blood is lost, and sacred drinks are spilled.
How many countries are there anyway?
I remember three such debates in particular: One, a marathon session in a dank and dark pub in Dublin on a rainy afternoon over numerous pints of Guinness. Another took place on a sultry and easygoing evening at the FCC in Phnom Penh. The most memorable one though, occurred though around a remote fire circle somewhere in the fabled Lost World of Venezuela’s Gran Sabana between a handful of well-lubricated fellow travelers from no less than five continents. All the debates start out the same…and then escalate to terra incognito from there: “So mate, how many countries have you been to?”
And so, it begins.
It sounds simple enough. And to some it is. Yet for me, this has always been a tough question to answer. One that I’ve grappled with and pondered obsessively since my graduate school days studying the lofty ideals of international relations at the London School of Economics. (Maybe that’s my problem? I am just a pointy headed intellectual!) Whatever…there’s no easy answer—at least one that makes everyone happy.
1911 British Empire Map of the World…a lot has changed.
Why? Because frankly, countries come and go. So the study of nation states demands a certain flexible multidisciplinary approach: tribalism, geography, history, culture and geopolitics all come into play. Remember, it wasn’t until 301CE that San Marino became the first official “country.” Believe it or not, nation-states have not always been—nor will they always be. Personally, I blame the mapmakers for all the subjectivity and disharmony on this issue. That, and the revenge of geography; outsiders drawing those arbitrary boundaries on pieces of old paper—What were they thinking? Either way, it is political geography run amok…the world map is not settled. Remember: East Germany, Czechoslovakia, South Vietnam, East Pakistan, North Yemen, Sikkim, the USSR and Yugoslavia?
I still have stamps from Sikkim.
So, depending on your definition of “country” it could mean different things to different people: according to the United Nations, there are 195 official nation-states (including: Palestine and Vatican City); the International Olympic Committee says the number is 206 (including: Puerto Rico, American Samoa, British Virgin Islands & Hong Kong); while FIFA of World Cup fame has 211 associate-states (including: Taiwan, Gibraltar, Macau, Northern Ireland & Wales); and the International Organization for Standardization (IOS) lists 249 different country codes (including: Antarctica, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Guam & Western Sahara).
But there are more than just dry political constructs to consider, there are living people to consider too.
Think about this for a moment: It is estimated that there were some 600,000 self-governing communities (tribes) in 1500 BCE, and now, after 3500 years of social evolution and a few hundred thousand wars, the ebb and flow of scores of empires, countless rediscoveries, and more than a few national mergers and acquisitions later, we’re down to just 195 nation-states in the United Nations. We know that scores of unrepresented people’s homeland aspirations lay outside our strict nation-state definition; think Tibet, Kurdistan, Uyghurstan, Scotland and Catalonia to name but a few. In fact, just using unique cultures, as defined by languages as a yardstick, linguists and cultural anthropologists contend that there are around 600 distinct ethnic groups with unique “in-use” languages—over 230 separate languages are spoken by at least 2 million people each day—of the 7,102 living languages still in use. (Differing regional dialects reflect the split of most of those 7,100 languages.)
The many languages of Asia alone…
That said, now here’s where it gets hairy for us travelers: The Century Club claims that there are 327 official countries and territories to visit, while the Most Traveled People list 873 such possible unique destinations. Clearly, a broader working definition of “country” must come into play when one is “counting” their visits—as we are seemingly prone to do.
Here’s my take: Somewhere between the seven geographic continents and 600 distinct cultures lies the answer. Aside from sometimes contentious on-the-ground political realities, islands remain the biggest point of disagreement among travelers whenever the debate ensues. The exact number is impossible to count (While the Chinese keep building more!), in fact, of the millions of islands per se, just 11,000 islands have permanent residents. There are over two thousand islands just in the oceans of the world. Do they all count? No, let’s not get silly.
Out of the way and with no good restaurants!
What about unique non-politically correct (at least today) places, breakaway and proto-states or unique territories and provinces? Examples include: Palestine, Taiwan, Kurdistan, Tibet, Abkhazia, Kashmir, Puerto Rico, Sahrawi, Somaliland and Scotland, among scores of others. Yes, they do count in my book as distinct and unique loosely-defined “countries”—sometimes within other “countries” by choice or not. I am from Ontario, Canada, and I can tell you that Quebec is uniquely different from the rest of Canada.
Finally, what about geographically disconnected (sometimes islands, sometimes exclaves), peripherally aligned to a “country”? Places like Alaska, Hawaii, Zanzibar, Kaliningrad, Northern Cyprus, Cabinda, Gaza, Musandam, Nakchivan, Temburong and Easter Island, to name but a few. Yes, they do count qualify as unique destinations to count as a visit.
So, 193 “countries” is clearly incomplete, 900 places to visit maybe a tad too high and I side closer to the 300 “countries” number, give or take; although islands remain my biggest point of disagreement with the “counters” I run into. To date, The Global Scavenger Hunt has visited 85 such countries.
The Global Scavenger Hunt 85…heading towards 100!
More importantly for us travelers than how many places there are to visit: What counts as an official visit to one of those countries?
Do you count layovers or fuel stops? What about driving or riding on a train through a country without getting out? Do you have to eat a meal there? Spend a night there? Have at least one interaction with a local?
My technical definition of an official “visit” is simple: You are there, two feet on the ground; there is no minimum time required for such a visit. That said, interacting with a local resident and either enjoying a meal or experiencing something is key. Personally, it is quality over quantity for me as I have aged and traveled more and more.
Proving it? Easy: passport stamp (a visa alone does not prove entry), transportation ticket stub, credit card or meal receipt, selfie of the traveler within the territory with some type of local sign or icon. Trust but verify I always say.
Just curious, anybody out there been to the world’s newest country?
Written by: William D. Chalmers
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