“It seems to have exploded over the last few years. I hear from so many people now who are collecting countries. A lot of them say they want to visit them all and I think a lot of them will realise it is actually quite hard the moment you pass 130 or 150.” says Gunnar Garfors.
And he’d know. Garfors is a Norwegian media professional and author, but, perhaps most importantly, he is a die-hard traveller, becoming the youngest person to visit every country in the world while working full-time.
But what is our obsession with countries, and why is it so important?
Counting countries is one of the most prominent trends in travel and tourism in the 21st century. You only have to look at the Twitter bios of various travel bloggers and enthusiasts to see how many countries they’ve stepped foot in.
It’s certainly an interesting thing to collect, but certainly a bit different from stamps, coins and football stickers, and maybe even a touch boastful.
Visiting other parts of the world is something that has been made easier to the many over the last decade or so. The internet has opened up a wealth of information and easier channels to acquire visas, and a rise to prominence for budget airlines has led to cheaper tickets and a more accessible transportation network. But for Garfors, who started his travels over 25 years ago, his passion didn’t generate from the need to post a Facebook status or take the perfect Instagram.
“To me it came from curiosity, it came from being intrigued by various countries, it came from wanting to learn and wanting to see for myself. Now it seems like I have inspired other people and other travellers have inspired other people and it seems to be like it’s a goal in itself to count or collect a country,” says Garfors.
“When I notice how some people do it, they count a country having just stayed in their airplane just refiling in an airport in Nauru or in Zimbabwe or another country they were too scared to enter or where it would take too long. “Oh, no, I didn’t want to go because now I have to stay there for five days. I know travellers who have done that.
“So to me it’s been about exploring the countries and seeing them. And I’m not going to say I’ve stayed for weeks in every country, I have not, but I have at least explored them. I’ve walked about, I’ve met people, I had meals there and I’ve slept in most of them as well.
“And I’m not slagging off those who count countries in various ways, but to me it is important to have a story to tell, to have done something and met locals, and all the rest.”
Garfors counts 198 countries in all, a number he calculates by taking the 193 members of the United Nations, adding the two observer states, Palestine and Vatican City, and also including Kosovo, Taiwan and Western Sahara due to them being acknowledged by several other UN nations.
The definition of a nation state by UNESCO, a UN agency which specialises in contributing to peace and security by promoting international collaboration through educational, scientific and cultural reforms declares:
“The nation-state is one where the great majority are conscious of a common identity and share the same culture. It is an area where the cultural boundaries match up with the political boundaries.”
British journalist Tim Marshall, who released his book Prisoners of Geography in 2015, taking a detailed look into global geopolitics, knows a thing or two about countries.
He says: “A nation state, to me, is a defined geographic area over which a central government has ultimate power. The central power can devolve power to regions, but ultimately, its bureaucracy judicial system and other institution such as security forces, hold sway.
“And why are they important? The idea of self-determination is tied up with notions of freedom and identity. We all dilute our sovereignty, or ability to do whatever we want, when we participate in life, but it seems there are limits to the extent of the dilution. If the members of a nation or tribe identify with each other strongly, they will organise self-government.
“However, most nations will not accept the hegemony by another more powerful entity and will seek to govern themselves.
“If the nations within a state are treated equally, and have degrees of autonomy, that will usually satisfy most members of the nation who will be content to remain with the state, like Scotland at the last referendum. In the event of what is seen as grossly unfair treatment, there will always be an independence movement, like with South Sudan. The state then has a choice. Treat the nation more fairly, allow it to leave, or seek to utterly smash the nation’s identity.”
But the importance of being acknowledged as a country or a state isn’t something that is limited to travellers, academics and the media. Recognition is a massive deal to those living in states that are either seeking independence, or have already attained it.
Bekim Xhemili was born in Kosovo, which gained independence from Serbia in 2008. Despite being an autonomous state and recognised by 111 countries, it is neither a member nor observer of the UN, partially down to staunch opposition from Russia and China who are allies with Serbia.
But Xhemili, who is an anthropologist and operates tours of the country under his Kosovo Local Guide brand, explained why getting independence is so significant.
“It’s important because we deserved it and we fought for it over a century. We are 92 percent ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and we were part of Albania in the 1900s before being conquered by Serbia and then becoming part of Yugoslavia, he explains.
“But Kosovo was different. We have large reserves of coal, lead, zinc, silver and gold. Underground we are very rich, but on top we are poor. With agriculture we are very good, and 60 percent of Kosovo is surrounded by mountains, so there is great potential for a ski centre.
“Independence gives us peace and stability and allows us to work on those things so we can become more like the rest of Europe.
“During the Balkan war there was a feeling that Kosovo independence would make a lot of trouble, but it is the complete opposite.
“We’re not part of the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, but we’ve now got football and basketball!
“And last year, for the first time, we attended the Olympics and we got a gold medal in Judo. Majlinda Kelmendi was the girl who won and she’s a two-time world champion, a three-time European champion and she’s the most successful Judoka in the world. We love her more than our president!”
For many people, particularly tourists, a new country is an exciting and exhilarating experience, serving to create amazing memories and, in some cases, feed egos. Yet for others, a new country means livelihood, the culmination of years of struggle and hopes for a better and brighter tomorrow.