travel musings

Why I’ve Given Up Counting Countries

This weekend, I’m off to Ireland – my 30th country! Or maybe my 33rd. Or maybe even my 28th. Who knows?

And who, in fact, cares?

I’ve always enjoyed counting countries, but not as a ticking off exercise or to be self-congratulatory; more just to keep track of where I’ve been and celebrate what I love doing.

I decided a couple of years ago that I would aim for the “30 before 30” target (and I do love a challenge), but when I moved to Canada, a country I’ve visited four times, and we made the decision to not take a trip to Ireland in November, I missed the bullseye by one point when I turned 30 in January. And guess what?

I found that I didn’t care at all.

(Or, in fact, maybe I had already hit it two years ago.)

koh phi phi, view, thailand
Koh Phi Phi, Thailand

The more I think about it, the more I feel like counting countries is pointless. After all, if you went to Prague and Bratislava 30 years ago, you would have been to one country. Now, they would count as two. And what constitutes a country anyway? If you’ve been to Taiwan, China doesn’t count it as a country. If you’ve been to Kosovo, the UN doesn’t recognise it as a country. Do I count Hong Kong? Gibraltar?

And what about the UK? Have I been to one country, or three? (I haven’t been to Northern Ireland) If I had never left the UK, it would seem totally absurd to say I’ve been to three countries yet never owned a passport. An English person would never say, “yes, I’ve been abroad – I’ve been to Scotland!” I’m happy to categorise England, Scotland and Wales separately for the purpose of the blog, but when actually counting countries? I don’t think it makes sense.

So when I land in Ireland in a few days, I haven’t got a clue what number country I’m on, and I can genuinely say I don’t really care.

Snorkelling in the Whitsundays, Australia
Snorkelling in the Whitsundays, Australia

Let me just say that there is nothing wrong with counting countries – after all, I do enjoy counting them myself – but if you’re doing it purely for bragging rights, then that’s the problem, not the fact you’re counting. Honestly, all the bullshit rhetoric about how counting countries somehow makes you less of a traveller can stop.

And as for people who race through a bunch of countries without really stopping? I get it, especially when you have limited holiday time. Heck, I’m the queen of fast travel – but given that I’ve spent over two of the last four years abroad, but visited 12 countries in that time, goes to show that I’m pretty good at slow travel too.

What’s more important, though, is the experiences you have in those countries. I only visited two countries last year, and I’d been to both before – but I lived in Canada for six months, and spent a month road tripping the USA. It’s different to spending a weekend in New York or Toronto. I spent a year living in Australia, which is different to a week in Sydney. It doesn’t make me a better traveller, but it has given me some meaningful experiences in those countries that I’d never get in a few days.

On the flipside, I spent a day in Denmark and Sweden, and damn right I’ll tell you that I’ve been to both. I went to Morocco for a day, too.

But I would never say “I’ve done Morocco”, which is the one problem I have with the country counting obsession. And let me tell you that you definitely have not “done” Spain if you’ve only been to Tenerife.

Hobbiton, Lord Of The Rings, New Zealand
Hobbiton, New Zealand

Similarly, I find myself returning to countries all the time, which is a very “anti-country counter” thing to do. I don’t remember where it was, but I remember booking a trip somewhere once, and someone said, “but you’ve already been to that country. Why go back when there are so many others to explore?”

Oh yes, I forgot that Barcelona is exactly the same as Seville. Munich and Berlin are practically the same city! And there’s nothing like sitting on a beach on the Algarve… no point going to Lisbon, then!

My main issue with counting countries, though, isn’t people’s attitudes towards it, or the differing levels of how well you might have travelled a country.

It’s the fact that there isn’t even an official number of countries to count, and that borders are ever-changing and are different according to different countries anyway. Lots of people go by the UN count, which stands (at the moment) at 192. According to the US government, there are 206. That’s a difference of fourteen countries, and who’s to say that you can’t include Puerto Rico on your list? Greenland? That’s officially Denmark, yet worlds apart when it comes to culture. The Cook Islands are New Zealand, and the French Polynesia is (unsurprisingly) France.

But if you went to the French Polynesia, would you really say you’ve been to France? Would you say it’s comparable to drinking wine in Paris? Does a visit to Puerto Rico really count as a visit to the USA?

So the whole thing is complicated at best.

Paragliding over Golden, BC, Canada
Paragliding in Canada

That’s the real reason I’ve given up on it. I genuinely don’t know if I’ve been to 30, because I don’t know what I should be counting, which is another reason you shouldn’t be counting for bragging rights. We could have been to the same number of countries, but if you’re counting Scotland and England separately, you can say you’ve been to one more. So to me, the numbers don’t matter because they probably don’t even add up.

Which brings me onto – what counts as a visit?

This was a discussion that came up on Twitter recently, and yielded some interesting responses. “You have to at least spend a night there,” somebody said, instantaneously wiping out about four countries and countless cities from my list.

“You can’t count it if you were only in the airport,” someone else piped up. I totally agree – personally, I would never count an airport; I think at the very least you have to clear immigration and leave the airport!

But it was an interesting point – what does constitute a visit? There are lots of towns that I’ve driven through and never stopped in, so obviously those don’t count. But what if I got out the car for ten seconds? Or went into a café to buy a cup of tea to go? I’d probably say I’ve been there if I have a meal in a restaurant, but what’s the difference between that and my cup of tea? I’ve been there; I’ve talked to someone.

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite National Park, California, USA
Yosemite National Park, USA

My bottom line is – count countries for you, because it’s not harming anyone else. The number of countries you’ve been to doesn’t make you a better person, nor a better traveller. The experiences might, but the number doesn’t.

But for now, I’m sort of giving up. I’ll have a tally in my head, but it’s for me (and, err, the destinations page on the blog).

And Ireland, this weekend you can be whatever number you want to be, darling.

What do you think? Do you count countries? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Why I've Given Up Counting Countries

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33 thoughts on “Why I’ve Given Up Counting Countries

  1. You make good points! Personally, I count countries, but only since a couple of years ago, when I made traveling my priority– before, I didn’t care so much. I have been to Taiwan countless of times (as it’s my parent’s home country), and I personally count it as a country, even with the political situation. It’s true that it’s tricky to define what is and what isn’t a country, let alone defining what considers as “visiting” and what’s “just passing through.” I think it’s all about wording it correctly and precisely, as you said (e.g. “I was in Texas, but just the airport, so I didn’t actually see the state”). It’s a never-ending debate that’s sure to please and piss other travelers off, but at the end of the day, it’s whether you got something out of the visit, and whether you enjoyed it. Very thought-provoking, to say the least!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nope, I hate it. I get that some people do it for their own satisfaction but it seems to me, more often than not, it’s for bragging rights. Like you say, you can’t tick off a country just by visiting one place. I’m a slow travel kind of girl and I prefer really taking the time to explore. The numbers don’t matter to me, the experiences do! Have an amazing time in Ireland! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! ❤ Yes, I don't like the idea of racing through countries to tick them off, especially if that's all you do. But at the same time, I ain't here to judge. But counting to brag as if it makes you a better person or a better traveller is wrong.

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  3. I used to count but just stopped caring eventually. Largely because my travel style and pace has changed. The counting country obsession I feel feeds into those ridiculous city / country guides on the best things to do in X, purely based on a 24 or 48 hour once off visit of the place.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is such a good point! I have friends who are obsessed with counting countries, but what does it really mean? What if you live in Canada, where you’re hours of flight time apart from very different cities yet still in the same country? To me, it’s much more valuable to appreciate the different cities and places you visit over counting countries for the sake of it. Saying that, I’d like to do both!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I was thinking of Canada quite a bit as I wrote this post! I’d still love to visit Montreal as it would be a totally different experience to anything else I’ve had in Canada. Nova Scotia? Different again. Yukon? EXTREMELY different! I sort of do both as well – generally I visit places that I’m interested in, and then get distracted by “well while I’m here, I might as well go to X as well!” haha, but not to tick them off a master list.

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  5. I think you’re lucky – and industrious, because you’ve made that luck yourself – to have visited so many places and had so many experiences. Question for you (maybe another blog post in this) – will you ever stop? Back to your point – I’ve known people who consider visiting the Isle of Wight as being overseas. Of course, all these ‘countries’ are invented by us anyway..I know, I know- try telling that to the nationalists 🙂 Oh – and many belated-type wishes for your birthday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah thanks Mike! I’ll never stop, but I will probably slow down… at some point! That’s interesting, that would be like saying Orkney is abroad. I suppose it is, literally, “overseas” lol. The Isle Of Man is definitely different but again I feel funny about that because we don’t need a passport to get there, it uses the same currency, has all the same shops and yet has its own government. I do get the whole “borders are imaginary” argument in some ways – look at how many countries have popped up in Europe just in my lifetime!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. What bugs me with the whole country-counting malarkey is the ‘been to one city (usually the capital = done the whole country’ mentality. I can’t get my head around why anyone would think, as you said, that Barcelona is the same as Seville, and not see the value in exploring other cities! Enjoy Ireland 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Rosie! I totally agree. Yes, you’ve visited, and yes, if you don’t really fancy going back, then you’re “done with it”, but you definitely haven’t “done” it! I don’t think I’ll ever have “done” Scotland, and that’s a tiny country in the grand scheme of things.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s exactly it! I feel much the same about England. For (in the grand scheme of things) pretty tiny countries, England and Scotland sure pack a lot in!

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  7. Great Post Clazz!

    I am terrible at counting countries. Last time someone asked me, I had to sit for a while with a cup of tea to work it out. …and then I forgot some. Oops.

    I can see why it’d be exciting for people to ‘tick off’ extra countries when they get a new stamp in their passport…I’d just prefer to spend a bit longer in fewer places and enjoy the experience.

    I do feel incredibly lucky to have been able to live in a few different countries long term, that is much harder for many people to achieve (we’re both lucky to have passport privilege with our European passports!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Josy! 🙂 Yep, I was tempted to touch on privilege as I think that has a huge amount to do with it! But it’s a huge topic on its own. It is exciting, but I’ve been more excited about the opportunity to live in Australia and Canada than hitting “milestones” in how many countries I’ve been to.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. As a political scientist, I’ve always struggled with the definition most bloggers use of number of countries in the world. Also, as I’ve gotten older, it has become much more important to actually experience and get to know each country I visit, instead of just going from one to the next in 2 days. Your article really made me reflect on these issues again!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s strange how there are so many different definitions of countries! I totally agree, although I am definitely guilty of going somewhere for a day or two as well. I quite like mixing it up. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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  9. I totally agree! I tried to count countries at first and ran into the same, unimportant problems! Do I could Gibraltar or the Grand Cayman Islands as their own countries? Totally agree to forget about this country counting thing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Every now and again I think about it and wonder how many countries I’ve been to. Mostly because I love making lists. But making a goal out of it didn’t work for me. I missed the 30 by 30 and 40 by 40 seems a bit too ambitious at the moment so I’m happy to go where I want, when I want and enjoy what I do when I travel. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I love this perspective! I found myself comparing my number of countries to other people’s, but it shouldn’t matter! I want to take my time experiencing other countries instead of just checking them off my list.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Same! I just don’t care at all. Although I don’t think I’ve ever been the country-counting type. I just have ideas of where I want to go and I either get there or they’re still on my list in my head.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. i think so many people these days are in a rush to see different countries and tick another off that they never really appreciate the places they visit. Truly appreciating the places you visit is much more important 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I have actually never counted countries. Never even thought about doing it. The USA is one country but it feels like the landscape is so many different countries. That is all that matters to me. Great post.

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  15. I have written a similar post on this sentiment. While I sort of get that some people cherish the accomplishment of having ‘done’ a certain number of places but then again – what is the point? What counts as a country, what doesn’t? What counts as doing it? I just thing it is a pointless discussion and one I am not doing anymore – I rather go places that I have loved before simply to enjoy them.

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  16. The whole country-counting thing has always made me feel a bit weird; as someone who works on a cruise ship, I’m surrounded by people who tick their way through the world like it’s a shopping list, despite the fact that often the ship only docks in any one country for 8 hours. I do keep a list of the countries I’ve visited but it’s really just for my benefit as I’m a big list-lover!! And I hadn’t even thought about the fact that some countries aren’t even recognised as countries in some places 🤦‍♀️ thanks for a great post!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much! I’m a list person too, which is why I do it. That’s an interesting point about cruise shippers! They see so much but so little. But I think that brings it back to the idea that I’d rather spend more time in a country if I can.

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