Young people in wealthy countries are bombarded with messages that they should travel the world as much as possible. We’re told to explore as much as we can, to travel cheaply so we can travel for longer, or even to live a life on the go for years at a time. The internet is flooded with photos, blog posts, and websites made by young people raving about their “nomadic” lifestyles, filled with all sorts of amazing global adventures.
There’s a lot to unpack in all of the current travel craze, but here I would like to focus on just one common undercurrent—the idea that traveling to more countries makes you a more successful traveler, or that seeing more places means you’ve had richer experiences. Here’s my response:
More is not necessarily better.
Let me be clear from the get-go: I want to focus on this idea because I am a first-degree offender. (I am not aiming some veiled criticism at any of my fellow travel-loving friends.) I’ve kept track of my “country count” for years, and if I stick strictly to sovereign nations, (not including Hong Kong or the Faroe Islands, for example), my count is 22. My wife is just as avid a traveler as me, but her country count stands at 14. Here’s a map of all of the countries each of us have been to:
I hope you already understand the problem with counting countries and making maps like this, though: It tells you next to nothing about a person’s real travel experiences. My “count” is much higher than my wife’s, but she’s spent significantly more time than I have making lasting memories abroad. I highlighted China, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore on my map, but I remember virtually nothing of being in those places. My parents moved to Hong Kong with me when I was six months old, and I traveled around with them as an infant and toddler. I know my experiences in those countries affected my early development, but ultimately that travel is part of my parents’ memories—not mine.
I’ll admit—the map could be improved in a number of ways with some added context. You can also make a map of all the individual cities and towns you’ve seen, and TripAdvisor has a pretty good tool for that. Here’s my personal map (orange is “been” and green is “want to go”):
A cities-based map definitely improves on the country-based map by showing how extensively you’ve traveled: It shows the only cities in China I’ve been to were Hong Kong, Macau, and Guangzhou, and the only place in Russia I’ve seen is St. Petersburg. On the other map, those huge countries were fully highlighted!
Ultimately, however, highlighting more countries or putting down more city markers on these sorts of maps can be an unhealthy pastime. International travel is a precious privilege—not a scavenger hunt where you cross off items on a checklist.
First, everyone has a limited ability to travel. Billions of people in the world lack the means to even consider traveling for pleasure, so it’s already a privileged conversation to talk about visiting other countries at all. Even in the United States, a poll conducted in 2018 showed that 40% of Americans have never left the country. The majority of these people (63%) cited finances as their primary barrier to travel, while only 10% of the survey respondents said they had no interest in travel at all.
For those of us who do have both the interest and the resources to travel, we still have limited time. Most Americans have sparse vacation time from their jobs, and often we need those days for personal and family needs in our regular lives; it’s difficult to save them all for grand adventures.
Many young travel writers address these problems by raving about how to travel more cheaply, or how to travel continuously while working as part of a nomadic “lifestyle.” As much as I marvel at people’s success in doing this, however, it’s still not realistic for the rest of us to pursue such paths: If you have most any sort of career and family commitments or long-term goals, you can’t go off and live as a nomad. The time available to leave home is almost inevitably limited.
I tend to believe that it’s best to use this limited time and money to aim for quality over quantity—to visit only the places you most want to see, and spend enough time there to truly enjoy and appreciate them.
Second, there really are places that most all of us should avoid—regions that are unreasonably dangerous for foreign visitors, or visits that require would-be tourists to make some ethically dubious choices. There are a number of people who boast about having visited every country in the world. (I won’t provide links, but you can find them online easily.) I very much wonder what reservations those people had before visiting the likes of Syria, Yemen, Libya, North Korea, or Eritrea. In these and other cases, I think there are gravely important questions to ask regarding whether it is worth the personal risk to visit a war zone, or whether it might put anyone else’s life in danger, or whether it’s worth potentially contributing to or providing cover for an oppressive regime.
There are less extreme examples, too: In 2017 my wife and I visited Russia, which I believe was justified for its incredible educational benefit. However, I understand if others might disagree and point out we effectively contributed money to the Russian government through visa fees. I’m open to criticism and discussion of my choices as a tourist—and everyone else should be, too.
Third, not all travel is good travel. Tourism can have all sorts of negative impacts on our world, and we as travelers should stay conscientious every time we leave home. Potential concerns include overtourism, cultural commodification, and environmental impacts on both small and large scales. What’s more, I think tourists like me often overestimate the positive economic impact we may have on the places we visit; speaking for myself, most of the money I spend on travel goes to big airlines—not the local residents of the places I go.
Here’s the bottom line:
If you feel like seeing as many places and visiting as many countries as possible is an overarching goal in your life, it may be time to step back and reconsider. Take a moment to seriously evaluate how much time you have to travel, what type of experiences you want to have, where you’re going, and what kind of impacts your visit might have.
When it comes to travel, try to choose quality over quantity. That’s something that I’m going to strive to do from now on.