Feed on

What’s a country?

In my last update you may have wondered: why “plus two” countries when Paul and Libby just went to Alaska (USA) and Canada? For our Travel Trifecta rules, we’re using the country list defined by the Traveler’s Century Club (here’s a link to their country list and rules). So what? Well, the TCC actually counts Alaska as a separate county!

This probably strikes you as silly, especially if you’re an American. Indeed, I had a similar initial reaction. (Although after visiting Alaska, I have to say in some ways it felt more foreign, or at least more detached, than say Toronto, Canada or Nassau, Bahamas.) However, it turns out it’s not so easy to define a list of countries.

It’s actually a significant point of debate.

Let’s start with something easy. How many countries are there?

As of today, the United Nations lists 192 members. The United States of America recognizes 194 independent states (the UN list plus Vatican City and Kosovo). Wikipedia (that store of all knowledge) lists 203 countries (the UN members, Vatican City, plus 10 other “sovereign” states recognized by some number of other countries).

Of course, a number of dependent territories or dependencies also exist in the world. These territories are often the remnants of colonization. The Caribbean and South Pacific are chock-a-block with examples: Cayman Islands, Puerto Rico, Netherlands Antilles, US & British Virgin Islands, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Saint Martin, Aruba, and so on.

Since 1945, the United Nations has maintained a (not uncontroversial, I might add) list of “Non Self-Governing Territories” with the expressed intent of decolonization: the unconditional transfer of all powers to these states “so that they might enjoy complete freedom and independence.” And, in fact, the UN has been successful. A number of current countries were dependent territories back in 1945, including Cyprus and Malta (which we visited this year). Clearly, the list of countries is fluid.

Some places also have people who argue for their own independence. Many of these groups are members of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). Here are a few you’ve probably heard of: Taiwan, Tibet, Kurdistan, and Kosovo. There’s also a long list of peoples and places you’re likely blissfully ignorant of, such as Batwa, Khemer Krom, Mari, and Tsimshian (note: each of these are on different continents, including North America). Yet, despite the seemingly long odds, at least six members of the UNPO have become recognized independent countries: Estonia, Latvia, Armenia, Georgia, Palau, and Timor-Leste.

Let’s also not forget the locations under “military occupation” (depending upon whom you ask). This list includes places like the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, Kashmir, Northern Cyprus, and Tibet.

We also have the “unusual” exception cases, such as: how to treat the European Union (a supranational organization), Antarctica (lacking a permanent population, but many land claims), or even the Knights Templar (Sovereign Military Order of Malta)!

And, I haven’t even brought up the issue of micronations!

Clearly, this is messy.

We weren’t happy with either the lists of the UN or USA. I’ll avoid specific geopolitical disputes. But, we simply believe that many non-independent territories should become (or be recognized as) sovereign entities. Others—many of which we’re not even familiar with—will become so. It’s the course of history.

Moreover, many dependencies have little resemblance to the parent states.

Is visiting Aruba really like traveling to the Netherlands? Can you skip Tahiti because you’ve “been to France” already? When you’ve visited the Cayman Islands, why bother traveling to Gibraltar or Scotland, right? You see how the logic breaks down.

Given that the list of countries is evolving and relative (based on who you ask) anyway, a more useful question is where to draw the line?

Enter the Traveler’s Century Club. Their list of 319 “countries” is based on independent states, as well as places that are “politically, geographically, or ethnologically” removed from the parent country. To us, this seems like a reasonable standard.

That’s why we’ve accepted it.

Of course, the TCC isn’t the final word. MostTraveledPeople.com lists 762 unique places in the world to visit. This seems to be accomplished primarily by adding internal divisions within a country to the list (such as states in America and provinces in Canada). Is this an equally valid list? Sure. We’ve just opted for a different standard.

Now… what constitutes a visit? :-)

One Response to “What’s a country?”

  1. Myndi says:

    My daughter and I have often debated over that last question: when can you say you’ve actually “been” somewhere? Her argument is if you’ve stepped foot in the location, even just the airport, it counts. Clearly, I completely disagree, though I’m still not sure I have a definitive answer myself.

    Having been to a restaurant or one site/monument in a location doesn’t feel like it really counts. You’ve eaten there or you’ve been to the monument, but you haven’t really been to the location. For me to count it for myself, I have to have spent a good 3 days there, visiting sites, walking around, and eating in local joints – not McDonald’s or Cracker Barrel (though I LOVE Cracker Barrel and having none in California, if I see one, we’re stopping). If you’ve given yourself the opportunity to get a feel for the place, to gain some definition of what is special about that place, then you’ve visited it.

    But that was a rhetorical question, right? 😉

Leave a Reply