I personally don’t like counting the number of countries I have been to. Actually, I have no idea how many countries I have been to. I also don’t particularly like knowing how many countries other people have been to, and I especially don’t think it makes any traveller better than another. While I can understand and respect the appeal, the notion of counting countries to me minimizes meaningful, immersive experiences and makes “successful” travel feel even more privileged and exclusive than it already is.
While I’m totally ok with people counting countries for themselves, I’m not so ok with using it as a way to compare each other as travellers.
Travel is a privilege. Freedom of mobility isn’t free. Let’s talk about passport privilege with regards to counting countries. The Black Expat does a great job of explaining passport privilege from her perspective. Similarly, Africa is a Country digs into the idea that passports and citizenship are “the most powerful currency today”.
To explain in numbers, my Canadian passport allows me into 115 countries visa free. Conversely, a Pakistani passport gets you into 8 countries without a visa. To explain in words, the notion that anyone can travel – that they just don’t prioritize it or care to even if they have the financial means to – is simply not true. Because of passport privilege, counting countries is like a race where the rules are not only unfair but where some players drive rocket ships while others walk.
Country-counting can sometimes encourage people to country-hop. In each country they see the top five attractions, take the appropriate iconic photos, and move quickly on to the next. In an attempt to count how many countries we can see in a short period of time, we minimize the value of slow travel. Slow travel is part of the greater slow movement and means taking your time, immersing yourself in the culture, paying attention to details and nuances, and making a connection to the local place and its people. It is the idea of getting to know a place well over time rather than rushing through the highlights.
Slow travel is not to be minimized by country-counters. It allows you to get a feel for the pace of a place, familiarize yourself with a few people or key places, cut transportation emissions and costs, and challenges you to engage on a deeper level. Hiking and biking are two ways to practice slow travel, but taking a train rather than a plane works too!
Related: Why I Hike
One is not necessarily better than the other, but we can elevate the benefits of slow travel by not prioritizing a number.
Who is a Traveller?
Without the money or means to travel to a different country or even a different state or province, counting countries can make people feel like they can not be a traveler. Our relationship with travel and how we perceive it depends on an intersection of our privileges and identities, much like our diverse relationships with the outdoors.
To travel is to go from one place to another. To take a trip or journey. It may include new experiences, different cultures, and interesting places unlike those one has seen before. Everyone can be a traveler.
To some, travel means visiting new countries. To others, travel is catching the bus to Chinatown to try dim sum and noodles. It is walking to the park and discovering all of the nooks and crannies, branches and birds, shrubs and grasses. It is all still travel. By widening the definition of a traveler and opening the doors, we can inspire travellers to identify as such. Then, as they grow, they may seek international experiences at their own pace.
Like the “outdoorsy people club” does not rank members by the number of mountains summited nor the brand of her clothing, the imaginary “traveller club” should not judge by the number of countries visited.
Instead of Counting Countries…
I don’t mean for people to stop counting countries. For many, the number is part of greater lifelong goals or representative of something more than just a number – and I am all for that. What I would like, however, is for us to be careful about using that number as way to validate or compare each other. Instead of asking about the number of countries someone has been to, why not ask about the number of…
- Languages they speak (and can you teach me!)
- Siblings they have
- Sports they play or watch
- Songs on their favourite playlist
- Types of international cuisines they enjoy
- Nights they will spend in the same place as you
- Pets in their life
- Shooting stars they have seen
- Sunsets they remember
- Ice cream cones they’ve had this week
- Marshmallows they can fit in their mouth at once
Not only are they less potentially problematic, but they often inspire incredibly interesting conversations. And isn’t that the point, after all?