Depending on how you count it, there are anywhere from 191–206 independent countries in the world. There is an extremely select group of living human beings—perhaps only 50 to 100 — who claim to have visited every country in the world. Doubtless, these people must have many amazing stories to tell, and they all have websites and book deals to prove it. (I won’t provide links to any of them, but you can find them pretty easily.) I think it’s natural for those of us who love travel to feel envious of these exceptional country-visitors.
However, just as I discussed in my article “Don’t Obsess About Counting the Countries You Travel To,” we should also ask some deeper questions: What exceptional circumstances enabled these people to travel to so many places? What risks did they take? What negative consequences might their travel have had?
Of course, the travel exploits of 50–100 visitors-of-every-country are unlikely to have had any major global consequences. However, it’s worth considering how many thousands or even millions of travelers aspire to follow in their footsteps—at least in part—as they seek to visit as many countries as possible throughout their lives.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes it clearer than ever that we need to carefully weigh the costs, benefits, and risks of traveling to other countries—whenever it’s even possible to do so. Visiting a place just for the sake of raising a “count” or crossing it off a list isn’t worthwhile. If you have a genuine, compelling reason to travel somewhere, that’s great! Otherwise, though, it’s better to stay home and consider other ways to interact with the rest of the world.
With all that in mind, I’d like to offer some suggestions for other ways that you can “visit” every country in the world:
1. Make friends.
2. Find an audience.
3. Show interest.
4. Help people.
1. Make Friends
We all know that social media and the internet in general have enabled us to reach and communicate with people around the world like never before. However, I’m sure many of us aren’t living up to our potential when it comes to making and maintaining global friendships.
I’ll take myself as an example: I restrict almost all of my Facebook friendships to people I’ve met in person, and I’m also pretty introverted, so I don’t have many foreign Facebook friends. Most of these friends are people I met while studying abroad in France, and then others I know through college, my family, or exchange to Japan. I made a pie chart for this data just for fun:
In any case, here’s the point: I’ve never been to Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, or Pakistan, and I’ve hardly spent any time in the U.K., but I am far more connected to those places because of the relationships I have with people from there.
Outside of my Facebook friends, I also interact with strangers from around the world through Facebook groups and Twitter. In those cases, I don’t need to adhere to some sort of artificial online “friendship” label in order to have interesting conversations with people and learn new things from what they share. My wife runs an Instagram page for our cat Freya, and she had the great idea to start using hastags in different languages on Freya’s pictures. Freya now has thousands of fans from around the world and regularly receives compliments in many different languages. She’s an indoor cat, but she’s also international!
Complaints about the dangers of social media are a dime a dozen, but social media also opens amazing opportunities for making global connections. Before visiting a new country, consider finding some friends or followers from that country on your preferred social media platforms. See how large your current sphere of international contacts is, and if you want to see as much of the world as possible, maybe you can see some of it through the eyes of your friends!
2. Find an Audience
Most websites allow content creators to track where their audience is coming from. If you produce anything that you share online, it may be fun and worthwhile to track how far your creative endeavors can reach around the world.
As I mentioned, my cat Freya has proven international appeal, but it turns out I was attempting to cultivate a global audience years before Instagram was even launched. I started a blog on Blogger back when I was in high school, and one of my favorite “widgets” that I added to the site was a “flag counter” that kept track of the origins of my blog readers. The blog is defunct, now that I write on Medium, but here’s what my flag counter looked like as of 2018:
I’m proud of the fact that my blog “collected” 195 different flags, although that does not represent 195 different countries, since many of the counted flags were from dependent territories. I even wrote a couple posts over the years to target countries that I realized I didn’t have visitors from: At one point I wrote a post about Myanmar (Burma) since it seemed like the country with the largest population that I hadn’t had any visitors from. Sure enough, the country appeared on the flag counter soon afterwards!
Perhaps the most surprising thing you might notice about the top flags on the counter is the high placement of West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire (CI), Burkina Faso (BF), Senegal (SN), Guinea (GN), Togo (TG), Niger (NE), Mali (ML), and Gabon (GA). The number one most successful post I ever shared on my blog (receiving over 63,000 views) was an essay I wrote in French on characters and the theme of identity in Senegalese author Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel L’Aventure ambiguë. I had written the essay as an assignment for one of my college classes on Francophone West African literature, and shared it on my blog as a whim. It turns out the material sparked a lot of interest from internet users in Francophone West Africa, (students, I presume), and now thousands of Africans have checked out an Alaskan’s take on a classic novel from their continent! The prospect of traveling around West Africa sounds enticing to me, but I also know it’s likely I may never visit countries like Burkina Faso, Togo, or Gabon. However, I do know that people there have read my writing, and I think that really does have to count for something.
If you run a website or produce content of any kind on the internet, it’s worth considering how what you create has the potential to “travel” around the world. If a particular country or region intrigues you but you don’t have a solid plan to travel there in person, find an audience and send your ideas there instead!
3. Show Interest
As I mentioned, I am a pretty introverted person, and I generally don’t like to cause any bother for others. However, over time I’ve realized that there are plenty of people and institutions around the world that are happy to receive unsolicited questions, information, donations, and well wishes.
One extreme example of someone who made connections by showing interest is this Danish guy who requested flags from every country in the world. Watch his video if you’re curious about his process and results. He later apologized because the interest generated by his video led to embassies getting flooded with many more requests for flags. In any case, I think it’s still a great thing to request flags or information from embassies of specific countries that you have a particular interest in, and it’s just one example of how people and institutions are (usually) happy to respond to inquiries.
For me personally, I’ve enjoyed making contact with international museums, particularly when it comes to tracking down Tlingit artifacts in Europe. (I am a history teacher in Lingít Aaní, or Tlingit Country.) When my wife and I visited the Netherlands in 2019, for example, I had contacted the Wereldmuseum in Rotterdam ahead of time and was able to visit their storage facility to see several Tlingit artifacts, even though the museum itself was closed for renovation at the time. If I hadn’t sent a few persistent emails, I never would have had the chance to experience seeing those precious artifacts in person. (I realize that this is an example of international interaction where I did physically travel, but I am sure the museum staff would have sent me photos and information even if I had never come to the Netherlands.)
Now that I’m a member of a few different organizations in my hometown including my local historical society and the city museum board, I know those institutions often receive all sorts of interesting inquiries as well. In the vast majority of cases, I’m sure the staff would much rather hear from curious people around the world than receive no interest at all!
4. Help People
My last suggestion is probably the most important: One alternative to traveling to new countries is to help people there instead.
It is possible, of course, to travel to new places and be of service there. There are many aid organizations active around the world that need people on location to help with their work. It is also true that travel really can help support local businesses and individuals. However, just like with the decision to travel somewhere new in the first place, there are many factors to consider when determining how much positive impact a service trip or lavish vacation spending might have on another country and its people. Indeed, those questions are far too large for me to discuss here.
Assuming that you’d like to help people in another place without having to visit, there are nearly countless opportunities: One avenue is to teach through the internet. Speaking English is an incredibly valuable skill in many countries, and there are likely well over a billion people in the world currently learning or improving their English. If you speak English fluently, you at least have some expertise to help a huge portion of the world’s population pursue their goals, and there are many different websites and platforms available to do it. One site I can recommend is Lang-8.com, which allows you to practice writing a language you’re learning while also helping other people write in your native language. There must be many platforms for teaching language through video and audio chats, but I’m not too familiar with any in particular, so I’ll leave it to you to research them. Speaking as a teacher, I think anyone and everyone has knowledge they can teach to others, and it’s amazing there are so many people around the world helping each other learn!
Another avenue to help people in other countries would be simply giving to charities. Charity Navigator lists over 500 organizations with an international scope that have the website’s highest rating of four stars. Many of these organizations likely provide opportunities to give to specific projects and needs in specific places, so if you want to make sure to send your money to “visit” a certain country or region and be of service there, you should be able to do so.
One organization I love is Kiva, (rated three stars by Charity Navigator), which allows anyone to participate in making microloans to people all over the world. I’ve made eight Kiva loans so far, and each one has been to someone in a different country. Here’s the map they provide of where my loans have gone:
It’s likely I’ll never visit Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan in person, but it feels good to know that I helped provide loans to a Kyrgyz woman to buy building materials and a Tajik man to buy livestock. In the 21st century, it’s more possible than ever to help people around the world in a variety of ways, no matter how small. It is worth careful consideration and research whenever you choose an organization to work with or a cause to support, but that’s no excuse not to do anything. Given all the time and money that many of us are willing to spend on travel, there’s bound to be much more we could do to help people in other places without having to travel there.
Travel is an enormous joy, and it’s a major part of my life. (At least, it was before COVID-19, and hopefully it will be again.) However, many young travelers like me are steadily recognizing that our vacations and adventures have complex impacts on societies and the environment—some good, some bad. In that light, I cannot in good conscience support people who would pursue visiting every country on earth, and it’s not a goal I’ll ever have myself.
Instead, it would be far more helpful, (or at least, less harmful), to “visit” every country in the world by more creative and varied means. You can reach out and make international friends without having to burn jet fuel to see them in person. You can cultivate a global audience for your endeavors without leaving your house. You can make someone’s day by showing interest in their home or their work, even if they live on the other side of the globe. And, there are so many people around the world you can help, even if you never get to meet them.
You can touch every country in the world without having to set foot there. Even if you’re not getting on a plane anytime soon, you can start making global connections now!