‘Globetrotter. 28 countries’ ‘Travelling the world. 36 countries’.
It’s the Instagram age and more and more people are showing off how well-travelled they are not just by sharing experiences, but listing the numbers of countries they have been to on their social profiles.
I get the temptation. Travelling is such a perspective-changing experience it can be hard to not show off sometimes. I’ve definitely been guilty of dropping in conversations ‘Oh this time in Botswana’… or ‘exactly the same thing happened to me in Peru!’
But in my view counting countries is a really flawed approach to sharing your travel experience.
It emphasises the quantity of countries you have been to rather than the quality of your experiences there. To add another notch on the list all you have to have done is been in that country. Technically I’ve been to Dubai, but since I’ve never left the airport, I don’t feel I can claim I have travelled there. But a lot of people who ‘count countries’ would do so and use that growing number to assert some sort of superiority about how well-travelled they are.
I have been to Zambia for a day. I spent three months in Nicaragua. The depth of my understanding of Nicaragua is therefore much greater than that of Zambia, but in the country counting model, they equate to the same difference.
Can you ever really have ‘done’ a country?
Another phrase I find frustrating is ‘oh yeah I’ve done [Mexico, for example]’. Most people who say this have been there max two weeks. What does it mean to have ‘done’ a place? Is that even possible? It comes across extremely arrogant.
On a different angle, I have friends who may not have been to as many different countries as I have, but have moved their lives full time to living in a different country, continent, or culture. The richness of their experience of those places is far superior to the two weeks I might spend somewhere. It means having friends, relationships, neighbours there, and forcing yourself to integrate somewhere completely new. I have a much greater respect of that sort of effort to change your life experience of the world.
It discourages returning to somewhere you’ve been
This approach also discourages going back to places that you have been before and loved. When this competitiveness takes over and the goal is to just keep adding to your list, you might miss out on developing a long term love of one place because it’s already ‘done’. It may be less of a priority than the plan to reach ’30 by 30′.
India was the first place I travelled to outside of Europe. It blew my mind, but in the three weeks I spent there I knew I barely scratched the surface. Travelling in a tour, I hadn’t got to know many local people. And while I saw more amazing sights than I thought possible in that time, in Rajasthan I’d only seen one corner of a vast and extremely varied country.
I went back a few years later to Kerala- the opposite side- and had a completely different experience of culture, food, religion, environment. Better yet, through an invite to a friend’s wedding it was possible to make friends there, go shopping in local places I’d never otherwise have known about, eat home-made cooking, and be treated as one of the family- and the connection I have with India has become more special because of that. And yet still with five weeks down, I know there is much, much more to see in India that’s probably ever possible in a lifetime, and I’ll keep going back.
It encourages an unsustainable approach to travel
Country-hopping as much as possible means more flights, less engagement with local communities, and less authentic connections with what makes that place different to anywhere you have been before.
In my view slow travel is the ultimate form of travel, if you have the time to be able to do so. Spending longer in each destination means that you really get to know a place. Travelling with locals on busses, boats, and trains, gives you a real sense of what it’s like to live there. And it’s considerably less damaging to the environment.
I get that for shorter trips and when you’re tied into a work contract, sometimes this isn’t possible, but if you’re doing lots of shorter trips for the numbers you’re just not going to have the same depth of experience, and you’ll leave a hefty carbon footprint to boot.
It contributes to elitism
Travellers are generally great: interesting (and interested), open minded, adventurous types that I love to meet, make friends, and explore with. However, there’s definitely an elitism that arises when you get into conversations in groups of travellers. ‘You haven’t travelled until you’ve been to [X place]!’, or ‘Aww, this is your first time out of Europe/the States?’
Who really cares how many places you have been? It’s the stories that matter. It’s how you engaged.
While budget travel is definitely possible, and the reality for most travellers, there’s no doubt that the majority of those who have clocked up 30+ countries have had to be pretty privileged to be able to do so. Whether it’s being able to take that amount of time off work or just being wealthy enough to afford to take multiple holidays a year, this is not normal and not the reality for the vast majority of people.
Travel should be inclusive.
I am passionate about travel because of the degree to which it can open up your world and give you new perspectives. But for many travel is only going to be possible in their own backyard, or neighbouring country. That does not mean that those travellers are less valid. Travel should not just be a rich kid’s game.
Unfortunately Instagram makes it seem that way. By making it seem that you are not a real traveller unless you’re constantly able to be on the go, with 37 countries under your belt, staying in luxury pads and snapping shots with equipment worth thousands of dollars, it may discourage people who have been less able to travel from even trying.
There’s a better way to inspire others
I can understand the desire to run a tally in your own head, (for all I’ve said I know how many countries I’ve been to and have been pleased to know it’s grown in the last few years). It might be exciting to make a personal goal to visit 30 countries before you’re 30. But what I don’t get is why anyone else needs to know.
Obviously people who share their travels for a living want to show they know their stuff. But will knowing your ‘numbers’ make your followers want to travel more? Or just feel inexperienced? Or inadequate if they are never going to be able to manage that?
The travel community is a wonderful space full of [wanderful] people. If as travellers, bloggers, instagrammers, or whatever we might be, want to inspire more people to go over borders and expand their horizons, there’s a better way. It should be about the stories we can tell, the photographs, the sharing of how it is possible for those who don’t have a huge wad of cash to fall back on. We need to stop counting and go back to basics, focus on why we started travelling in the first place. And share the joy, not the smugness.