How Many Countries Are There Really? Depends How You Count

Roaming the world should be a matter of art, not math. (Photo: Martí Sans/Stocksy)

By Bruce Northam / American Detour

There is always that one person in the office or at a party who has just returned from a trip and treats it more like a checked box than a profound revelation. Whether they have discovered the soul of that destination or not is of no significance. It’s like that overzealous elementary school classmate who earned all the stars on that chart on the wall. In our internet-driven culture, one-upmanship has become all too common. Well, as it turns out, counting countries is like judging cuisine—it all depends on the referee.

Country counting is misleading and no way to measure a world traveler. If today’s hardcore globetrotters had been born near European seaports in the 1500s, they’d surely be the ones volunteering to crew on those outbound world exploration ships. And they’d be landing in undeclared territories, unconcerned about ticking off country claims. I cringe to tally up destinations visited, but did just that to justify the arrangement of my book, The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons.

On the other hand, country calculating does arouse contemplation, as many of us do aspire to feel every country. However, the global count depends upon who is doing the math. The U.N. currently recognizes 193 official countries with Sudan’s split adding a digit. It ignores Taiwan and also Martinique, the latter which it lumps it with France. FedEx delivers to more than 220 countries and territories, including North Korea.

Related: Why Counting Countries Isn’t As Obnoxious As It Sounds

Border disputes are as old as time. The U.N. views Puerto Rico only as a U.S. Territory, which it is, but it still feels like its own country. Perhaps the most humane approach toward country counting would be to use the 205 nations that competed in the 2012 Olympics, which includes Samoa and American Samoa, though the latter is actually a territory.

As for those keen on padding their stats, there is the Travelers’ Century Club. This club spikes the number to more than 300 by including places that are removed from their parent country by geography, politics, ethnicity, or culture. For example, Papau, recently known as Irian Jaya and before that Dutch New Guinea, is not only a great distance away from its parent country, Indonesia, it’s also culturally light years away. This kind of categorization makes sense within the many shifting nations in today’s world.

The geographic location, politics, and customs of Alaska and Hawaii are a far cry from what makes Georgia tick. To consider these places as individual countries, however, as the Travelers’ Century Club does, is an argument for the ages. Heck, New York City smells different from block to block. You can wander its five boroughs for years and will never experience its every note.

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I can testify that Antarctica’s Deception Island, which is part of South Shetland and one of the Falkland Islands Dependencies, is a world unto itself. Travelers’ Century Club even subdivides the White Continent into seven countries, not including the regions leased for research. Acing their test would be easier said than done.

Whichever destination calculus you choose, you should remain wary of relying on a tally for bragging rights. You can knock off 10 in as many days traveling through Europe, if that is your thing. A manic tour of Southeast Asia can log 10 more countries in less than a month. Africa’s 55 countries make it a handy field of dreams for counters. However, you will miss the most precious takeaway of allowing the people from these destinations to saunter over and discover you. I’ve been to a dozen countries a dozen times. That didn’t increase an inconsequential nation ticker, but it forever connects me to those places.

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One aspect to value is the Travelers’ Century Club recognition of how so many countries can have many diverse vibes that are blind to nationalism. The regional enchantment within such massive spaces as Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Russia (nine time zones), and the U.S. should alter how we perceive the world. None of these countries adhere to just one dogma or brand. Geographically and culturally, these sprawling realms have provincial variations that are so distinct from one another that each of these nations could subdivide into a dozen or more provinces. Exploring these bigger countries and all countries, for that matter, at a slower pace will allow you to gain the insight lost in a check-the-box race.

For those looking to merely slap a number on where they’ve been, do airport stopovers and day-tripper cruise ship dockings really count? One confirmation of a contented soul is to be absorbed by one’s surroundings. So don’t tally the countries you visit but take your time wandering through them. Be available for the magic and roam out of bounds.

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