The question I’ve been surprised I haven’t gotten more often is “why do you list Hawaii as a country on your list of places?” Hawaii clearly is as much a country as Kansas, so it would seem odd to list it separately as a “country”. Moreover, I have Okinawa listed separately, which is also not a country.
I’m writing this because it is going to get really weird in Indonesia and Malaysia and I don’t think I’ve ever really given a proper explanation behind the list and why it is what it is. Also, travelers seem to love lists. Almost every article in every travel magazine and website is of the format “X ways to do Y”, so I figure going into detail about my list should pique some people’s interest.
It all revolves around the question “what is a country?” It is a simple question, but answering it is really complicated. The obvious place to start is the list of member states in the United Nations. There are currently 192 members nations in the UN. I think everyone would agree that if you have a seat in the UN, you are a country. Vatican City has chosen not to become a member of the UN and has observer status. (Switzerland was an observer until 2002). They have diplomatic relations with many governments around the world so are widely considered a country. (technically, the Holy See has diplomatic relations, not Vatican City, but I’ll leave that to another day when I’m in Europe)
Beyond that it gets tricky.
Taiwan is the next hard one. Taiwan is recognized by several countries as the true “China” but they are mostly small countries. They used to have a seat in the UN as the Republic of China, had China’s current permanent Security Council seat, and used to be recognized by the US and most countries in the world. It is a de facto independent country, but it is not a recognized country.
There are actually a bunch of countries with similar diplomatic limbo status to Taiwan: Former Spanish Sahara, Northern Cyprus, Palestine, Transnistria, and several places in the Caucuses.
On top of that, you have non-independent countries. These would be territories of other countries which are geographically and culturally separate from the mother ship. Examples would include Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Gibraltar, Falkland Islands, several Caribbean islands, Hong Kong and Macau. Many of these territories have separate Olympic teams.
If you total up all these, you have about 250 “countries”, not all of which are independent or recognized.
For a traveler, that list is still far from complete. For example, Easter Island is part of Chile. It is not a separate territory or jurisdiction. Yet, if you have been to Easter Island, have you really been to Chile? In a very technical sense, yes, but in a more realistic sense, no. Historically, culturally, geographically and linguistically, Easter Island is its own thing. The bond with Chile is political.
Likewise, Hawaii and Okinawa are sorts of oddballs in their respective countries. Hawaii is isolated from the rest of the US, has a culture and history totally separate from the rest of the US (it used to have a monarchy 100 years ago). Okinawa is similar.
The list I used is the one assembled by the Century Travelers Club. They have basically set up criteria to determine what is and what isn’t a country. According to their list, there are 317 “countries”. Other lists include the countries with top level domain names. For the most part, I think the Century Traveler Club is a good and reasonable one and that is why I use it.
Given its criteria, Indonesia (because it is an archipelago) is actually seven “countries”. For the purposes of my website, I’ll stay consistent with the TCC list on the left, but each of the Indonesian places will all link back to a single “Indonesia” category in the database. I don’t foresee having much to write about in Kalimantan for instance. Ditto with Malaysia which is divided into three separate places. (Oddly enough, the Philippines, which is also an archipelago, is only one “country”.)
Don’t Stop at 300
Some lists don’t stop at 317, however.
The ham radio community keeps their own list of places. Their list currently includes 338 places , and includes uninhabited rocks in the Atlantic (Peter and Paul Islands), a single building in Rome (Sovereign Military Order of Malta, I’m going to have a blast writing about that someday), and islands off Antarctica (Peter I Island).
Personally, I think uninhabited islands are taking it a bit too far…
But the list building doesn’t end there.
Not all of the lists overlap nicely. One guy, Charles Velay, set out to break the world’s record for being the most traveled person. He created a mega list made up of all the other lists. This list has 673 places and includes all states and provinces in the US, Canada, UK, Russia, Brazil, Australia, India and every Antarctic territory. It also expands into small islands lying off the coast of countries. The list is now determined by members of his website who vote. Charles has been to 629 of the 673 places listed on his site. However you define it, I think he definitely owns the record.
Things Instead of Places
Personally, I think it has been taken to a bit of an extreme when you start including uninhabited rocks which have no historic, cultural, or political value whatsoever. You might as well include every island in the world and every possible political division.
That is why I include the second list right below the countries, the UNESCO Heritage sites. Let’s face it, if you haven’t seen the Statue of Liberty, you haven’t really been to New York. If you haven’t seen the Eiffel Tower, you haven’t been to Paris. There are some things which do not involve putting your foot on soil that really defines traveling. I think that the UNESCO list is a pretty reasonable list, of “great places”, at least historic and natural places.
The UNESCO list however, doesn’t include things like the Hong Kong skyline, great museums or modern buildings. Howard Hillman has created his own list of World Wonders. He has 1000 things scattered throughout the world. It too is a pretty good list as they go.
Before I left on my trip I purchased a copy of the book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die. It turns out that about a quarter of the places are hotels and an abnormal number of places are the UK. I think the book is garbage. If the author went to even 1/3 of the places in the book, I’d be amazed.
Lists are Fun
I don’t travel to cross stuff off a list, but if you are going to travel, having a list can be fun. Hell, most travel magazines and Travel Channel shows are nothing but top 10 lists.
Anyway, if you wanted to know why Indonesia is listed so many times, but Australia is only listed once, that is why.