Most travelers hold their own unique bucket list of destinations, but how many have every single country in the world listed?
While the number of people who’ve been able to achieve this is still relatively small – reportedly estimated at around 400 or so – more and more are going all out to achieve this feat.
In fact, 2023 saw a record 50 new entries joining the coveted list of people who’ve traveled to all 195 UN-recognized countries and territories, according to NomadMania, an online platform that allows global explorers to track their travels.
So what inspires someone to seek to travel to every country, and how difficult is this to actually achieve?
Finnish writer and foreign correspondent Rauli Virtanen, who grew up in a rural village, is believed to be the first person to have visited all of the countries in the world.
While there were fewer UN-recognised countries (170) when Virtanen achieved this goal in 1988, he says he’s “been adding the new ones” in the years since then.
When questioned about the motivation behind his desire to visit every country, Virtanen puts it down to “extreme curiosity and collector´s mentality.”
“In the mid ’80s, I noticed that I had already been to 150 countries and thought that maybe before I die, I can visit the rest of them,” he tells CNN Travel via email.
Virtanen may well have completed this challenge in the late 1980s, but the notion of travelers “collecting countries” dates back much further.
The Travelers’ Century Club (TCC,) an organization for people who’ve visited 100 or more of the world’s countries and territories, first launched in 1954 and is still going strong today.
“I think it’s always been there as an intrinsic motivation to roam, but historically, travel was limited to people with the financial resources, career flexibility, and great health,” says Michael O’Regan, a Tourism and Events lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University in the UK.
O’Regan goes on to point out that more people have the means to earn money while traveling now, while many are choosing to travel after early retirement.
“Before, you might have needed ‘connections’ in particular countries, [or] have difficulty in getting visas or invitations,” he says.
“You needed a ‘strong’ passport, and access to resources, such as tour guides and insider knowledge about transport and hotels.”
Of course, this isn’t the case for many travelers today thanks in part to low-cost air carriers, visa on arrivals, and online booking systems, notes O’Regan.
“It’s much easier to travel and clock up country visits (especially if you count stopovers, or transits,)” he adds.
Patrick Gilliland from the US is among the many people who’ve opted to devote their later years to traveling the world.
Like many of those who’ve been finishing off the last country’s on their list in recent years, his epic adventure was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought about border closures and lockdowns, with some countries keeping restrictions in place for longer than others.
But the 62-year-old was finally able to achieve his dream last year after many years on the move.
“I never really thought it was possible to visit every country until the last few years,” he tells CNN Travel. “I figured certain places would be too dangerous or visas impossible.”
Gilliland, who’s spent at least 48 weeks of the year traveling in recent years, acknowledges that getting access to every country wasn’t easy and involved “a bit of luck and timing.”
“I visited North Korea 20 years ago when relations were better with the US, “ he says. “I tried several times over the years to get an Iran visa, Nauru is so little visited that the visa is difficult and decisions are on the whim of an individual.”
When he arrived in his final country, Libya, which had just re-opened to US citizens, in September, he was initially denied entry at the airport.
Of the select few travelers who’ve visited every country, the majority, if not all, appear to have had a significant number of countries ticked off before taking on the challenge.
Slovakian travel blogger Martina Sebova had already visited over 100 of the 195 UN-recognized countries and territories on the globe before deciding to visit the remaining countries with her Australian partner Rachel Davey.
“I think it would terrify me if I had to start visiting every country and I’d been to like 10,” Sebova told CNN Travel in 2023.
“I don’t really think that that’s even viable. You need to be well traveled [before doing something like this].”
The explosion of social media, which first became popular in the early noughties, has undoubtedly played a huge role in the rise of people attempting to visit every country.
“The advent of social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok mean, some will be continually inspired by others who are pursuing this goal of visiting X, Y or Z across the globe,” says O’Regan. “It now seems more accessible and feasible than ever before.”
However, it’s worth noting that this accessibility is ultimately limited to those who have the financial means to travel frequently, as well as a passport that allows them to go to any destination that they want to.
This is an uncomfortable reality for Virtanen, who admits that he’s developed “mixed feelings” about his incredible accomplishment over the years.
“I have been very fortunate,” he acknowledges, before explaining that he was able to visit 95% of the countries through his work, and would never have been able to afford to travel to so many places otherwise.
“I had editors who signed my travel expenses and accepted my ideas to travel to distant countries so that my readers and viewers would know what’s going on.
“I belong to that very tiny minority of people, born and educated in wealthy countries, who can afford to travel anywhere in the world. I have a kind of guilty feeling about that – if you understand me – and therefore I never tell people in poorer countries that I have visited all the countries of the world.”
Jamaican born traveler Romaine Welds had few opportunities to see the world before he moved to the US in 2007 and began working for an airline. In fact, he’d never left Jamaica before then, and recalls looking at the country’s blue mountains and wondering what lay beyond them.
“My family was poor and no-one in my family traveled, except for my father who would travel back and forth between England and Jamaica once in a few years,” he explains via email.
After making the most of the free and discounted flights he was able to get through his job, Welds starting visiting his “bucket list places” and managed to travel to 100 countries.
When he realized he was “halfway there,” he set about visiting the other 95 UN-recognized countries, with the aim of being the first Jamaican and Caribbean person to do so. He visited his final country, Antigua, in 2022.
“It’s very special for me to be in a country as a Jamaican and represent the country,” he adds, recalling how rare it was to see people traveling extensively while he was growing up.
The length of time travelers take to visit every country in the world tends to vary. While Welds was able to complete it in around 15 years, it took Gilliland around four decades.
Some travelers have been racing to achieve it in record time – with Taylor Demonbreun from Canada currently holding the title of ‘fastest time to visit all sovereign countries’ (overall) after achieving this in one year and 189 days.
This competitiveness is something of a concern for Virtanen, who admits to being critical when he sees people seemingly “hopping from one place to another one and the only information we get from them in each country is selfies promoting themselves.”
“Lately it has been very easy to visit every country in the world, if you have the money and [the] right passport,” he adds.
“We are not a ‘tribe’ of Lonely Planet guide book-carrying backpackers anymore. The motivations are changing.
“The majority is still a curious explorer type, but also vanity is taking over now when globetrotting is becoming so easy.”
Becoming part of the elite group of travelers who’ve visited every country in the world can certainly open up further opportunities.
A number, including Ugandan-American travel influencer Jessica Nabongo, who became the first Black woman to document traveling to every country in the world in 2019, and Gunnar Garfors, believed to be the first person to visit every country in the world twice, have released books about their experiences.
Last year, search aggregator and travel agency Skyscanner launched a pop-up “Everywhere Agency” that connects travelers with people who have visited every country across the globe – among them Garfors and Basanth Sadasivan, one of the youngest people to visit every country in the world.
While O’Regan acknowledges that some travelers are “propelled by an uncontrollable urge” to visit every country, he feels that “collecting countries” in such a way can “promote superficial travel that neglects deeper cultural understanding or connection.”
“There is incentive to hop regions quickly and risk the very things we want to recover from: physical and mental burnout,” says O’Regan.
“It undervalues travel’s potential for cultural exchange, self-reflection, and the concepts of slow travel and sustainability.”
When it comes to the question of speed, Welds concedes that each traveler will “have their goals,” but feels that it’s important to “travel slowly and enjoy each country.”
“I think if you really want to see the world, you will take time,” he tells CNN Travel. “To each person their own, but I wouldn’t race around the world. It’s just a waste of money in my eyes.”
The idea of what constitutes a true “visit” has been a hot topic of discussion in recent years, with many travelers disagreeing on what the criteria should be.
Last year, NomadMania produced detailed guidelines on this subject after polling its users in 2022 and 2023.
“It has been important for me to get to know as much as I can about each country we visit,” says Gilliland, explaining that he sometimes spent up to six weeks in a country while completing the challenge, but only spent around half a day in smaller countries like Monaco and Luxembourg.
“My opinion regarding a ‘visit’ is that airport stops/transits won’t qualify,” says Virtanen. “Visiting [the] DMZ is not a visit to North Korea… Always go through the immigration…
“Stay overnight - but on the other hand day trips to smaller countries like Nauru, San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein or Luxembourg are ok.
“A ‘real’ traveler stays days or weeks in places like Lagos, Mumbai, Mongolia, Colombia…”
As travelers who were previously prevented from finishing their challenge due to border closures and political unrest in specific countries in recent times are able to tick their “final” countries off, it’s likely that we’ll see the list of people who’ve traveled to every country jump up even further in 2024.
For O’Reagan, this isn’t necessarily a positive thing, as “most of these tourists simply don’t have the time to travel sustainably or think about their impacts.”
“Their lifestyle, if measured, would probably make a huge contribution to climate change through carbon-hungry activities,” he adds. “They do not realize this.”
He goes on to point out that it’s estimated that more than 90% of people have never flown and just 1% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of emissions from flying.
Traveling to every country without flying is certainly possible, for those who have the time, money and stamina at least, as proved by Torbjørn “Thor” Pedersen who set off from Denmark to do just that back in 2013.
After nearly 10 years on the move, Pedersen, who included both UN-recognized sovereign states and partially recognized states in his quest, entered his final country, the Maldives, last May.
This achievement, along with that of Garfors, will likely help to inspire other travelers to attempt similar feats and/or come up with newer challenges in the coming years, with more and more competing to claim titles and/or break records.
While Virtanen accepts that this is inevitable, he feels that those intent on visiting every country, as he did, should also try to find ways to help “to improve the lives of those who can´t afford” to travel.
“If we can afford to fly around just for the sake of collecting countries and leaving a massive carbon footprint, then we are rich enough to afford to pay back somehow,” he adds.
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