How Many Countries Are There?

I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night.  This is my only photo.
I was in the tiny nation of Nauru for about an hour, in the middle of the night. This is my only photo.

If you have traveled heavily, you have probably tried to convey the extent of your travels by condensing it down to a single number. It might be the number of countries you’ve visited or the number of states or provinces in your country you have been to.

Answering the question “how many countries have you been to?” is not as straight forwards as it may appear. While many places are obvious, the definition can sometimes be slippery and broader than you might think.

The United Nations

A good place to start any list of countries is with the UN. The United Nations is a body of 192 sovereign independent nation states. This covers everything you probably first think of as a country. Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Botswana, Malaysia, etc. Most of the big spots on the map can be filled in with countries which are members of the United Nations. The only country which is generally recognized as an independent nation but is not in the UN would be Vatican City, which has observer status at the UN. That would put the list at 193.

I was in Kiribati for several hours. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled
This was all I saw of Kiribati. I was denied entry into the country because the ink on my visa stamp bled.

The UN doesn’t cover everything, however. If you watched the opening ceremony at the Olympics, you will have noticed that over 200 countries were represented. 200 is greater than 193, and the Vatican doesn’t have an Olympic team (but it would be kind of cool if it did). This leads us to…

International Olympic Committee

There are 205 members of the IOC. The difference between the UN and the IOC is that the IOC includes several non-independent countries which are usually considered a territory of a larger country. This includes such places as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Cook Island and the British Virgin Islands. The IOC also includes Taiwan (known in the IOC as Chinese Taipei) which is not a member of the UN.

If you merge the list of the UN and the IOC, you still have some issues. Hong Kong is part of the IOC, but Macau isn’t. American territories have independent status in the IOC, but French territories such as French Polynesia do not. Antarctica isn’t represented on either list, but it is an entire continent you can visit. We need a bigger list.

There is also another problem. The United States has 50 states, but there are obvious differences between Hawaii and Kansas. Not only are Alaska and Hawaii geographically separate from the rest of the US, but they have different histories and cultures than the rest of the country. If you have been to Hawaii, have you been to the United States? In a certain sense yes. Hawaii is one of the 50 states. In another sense, no, going to Hawaii isn’t the same as going to Kansas. In countries like Indonesia, you have thousands of islands which cover many different ethnic groups and languages. Is going to Vladivostok the same as going to St. Petersburg? Not really.

I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time
I was in Macau for about 12 hours, but did manage to see most of the territory in that time

Travel isn’t just setting foot in political jurisdictions. Cultural and geographic distinctions are important as well, even if they are lumped in the same political entity. To solve this issue, enter….

The Travelers Century Club

The Travelers Century Club has taken it upon themselves to create a definitive list of “countries” for the purpose of travel. They not only include all of the above places, but also split off Alaska and Hawaii, Siberia from the rest of Russia, all the Emirates in the United Arab Emirates, the major island groups of Indonesia, the nations of the UK (England, Scotland and Wales), Tasmania and the rest of Australia, etc. Their list has 319 “countries”, and I put countries in quotes because most of them do not meet most people’s definition of a country.

This is the list I use on my website. I think it is a reasonable list which is covers most of the “places” on Earth. I do have some disagreements, but ultimately any list is sort of arbitrary and my disagreements are small enough that I still feel comfortable using it. Every so often I get an email from someone telling me that Hawaii isn’t a country (duh) or reminding me that Tasmania is part of Australia. I know that, but that isn’t really capturing the spirit of the list.

Where do you go once you’ve been to every place on the TCC list? That was answered by Charles Veley and…

Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.
Musandam, Oman is on the MTP list, but not the TCC list.

Charles Veley is the self proclaimed “Most traveled person on Earth”. Actually, I have no reason to quibble with that title. He put in a helluva lot of effort into completing the TCC list and then set out for more. His website, goes every further than the TCC and lists every US state, Canadian province, and region of Russia, Australia, China, and Brazil. It also goes the added step of merging the ham radio DXCC list, which is where the list begins to lose me. They list 757 places, of which I’ve been to 341 (as of 2016). A large number of the places they list I have no desire to ever visit. It focuses too much on uninhabited islands, exclaves and enclaves. For example, it lists Johnson Atoll, which is a territory of the United States in the Pacific. There is nothing special about this place. No one ever lived there. It has no history, culture, or anything interesting about it from a natural standpoint. It is just a place which is only remarkable because of its odd political status. If it were given to Hawaii, nothing about the atoll itself would change, but it would probably be removed from the list. There are a bunch of these rocks in the middle of nowhere which get listed. I really see no reason why every speck of island in the world doesn’t deserve listing if these places do. It might be interesting for ham radio operators to talk to someone from there, but as a travel destination, it isn’t worth anything.

To me, a place is a place because it has some significance. It could be political (see the UN list), it could be cultural, historic, or natural. That is why in my sidebar I also list:

Visiting Historic Nara isnt the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan
Visiting Historic Nara isn't the same as same as just stepping foot in Japan

UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There are 1,031 World Heritage Sites and there are more every year. Going to see the pyramids is different than just having set foot in Egypt. Seeing the Grand Canyon is different than having an overnight stay in LA. Not all countries are equal in that respect. Some countries with long histories have more sites than others. The US and Canada do not have much in the way of cultural sites compared to Italy or China. Ultimately I like this better than a country list because it represents specific things and places with a reason for each one. Also, unlike countries, you usually don’t just pass through a World Heritage site like you might pass through a country on a train or in an airport. If you visit one you probably went there to see it. The problem is most people have no clue how many they have been to and have no idea how many there are. They are also much more difficult to visit. Going to the Solomon Islands is one type of difficult. Going to the east end of Rennell Island World Heritage site is a totally different type of hard.

I should also make note of one other list which is sort of fun….

The Hillman Wonders of the World

Howard Hillman is a writer who has compiled a list of the top 100 and top 1,000 wonders of the world. I’ve decided to put this on my sidebar as well because I think it is a fun list. It is in the same spirit as the World Heritage list but includes things like city skylines, cruises, and drives. I think seeing the skyline of Hong Kong from Kowloon was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen, but it will never be on a UNESCO list. I have currently been to 27 of the top 100 and should increase that significantly in the next year.

So, once again I ask you the question: How many countries have you been to?