Matt McCaughey had tried four times to get a visa for Syria. Of the 193 U.N.-recognized countries in the world, it was the only one he hadn’t been to.
Then the coronavirus hit, rapidly closing borders and shutting down worldwide travel.
Now the 48-year-old from Las Vegas doesn’t know when, if ever, he’ll accomplish his dream of visiting every country in the world.
“It was going to be my last chance for a while, as my wife just had our first child,” McCaughey explained, adding that it’s impossible to predict which countries will reopen their borders and when.
Had McCaughey visited Syria this spring as planned, he would have joined a small coalition of travelers who can claim that they’ve been everywhere in the world. Harry Mitsidis, founder of NomadMania, a group that tracks and verifies those who engage in competitive travel, said its database lists roughly 250 people who have earned that distinction (some of whom are now deceased).
This style of exploration had exploded in popularity over the past couple of decades, until the novel coronavirus effectively cut off its trajectory. In 2000, it was believed that only 12 people had ever ventured to every U.N. country. But in 2019 alone, at least 39 people set foot in their last country. They nearly double the 2018 number (and make up nearly 16 percent of the cumulative total).
Mitsidis credits three conditions for rising interest in “country counting”: the increasingly widespread openness of borders, decreased costs of travel because of greater infrastructure, and a new wealth of networks and support for those keen on joining the 193er club.
Between January and early March, nine people accomplished the feat, so it’s likely that 2020’s total would have been greater than the preceding year’s. However, it’s unlikely more finishers will be added to the list in 2020.
Sam Hawthorne, a 24-year-old explorer from Britain, also would have finished in April, making him the youngest man to ever pull off the round-the-world triumph. For now, he’s staying in Tonga.
When he was offered a repatriation flight, he declined. His final few countries are largely in the Pacific, and he’d hoped a travel bubble would open up between the neighboring nations. Now the odds that he’ll defeat the current record holder by the October deadline look slim.
Traveling pair Rachel Davey (a 40-year-old from Australia) and Martina Sebova (a 39-year-old from Slovakia) are also competing for titles, though theirs are less time sensitive. When they wrap up, they’ll be the first women from their respective countries of birth to do the loop. For them, helping to diversify a list made up of predominantly White, European men is what drives them.
“Realizing that left us with a bigger purpose: to inspire other women travelers,” Sebova said, adding that she hopes the one takeaway others learn from their story is that the denizens of the world are largely good and that it’s not as dangerous to travel around the world as one might think, even if you have two X chromosomes.
At present, they’re missing nine countries, though they include the U.N. observer states (the Vatican, which they’ve been to, and the Palestinian territories, which they have not) in their count.
Australia, where Sebova and Davey are currently based, has a ban on its residents leaving the country, even if other countries open up. Sebova said they hope to be able to finish their journey in 2021.
But even when they are able to leave, it will take months to replan. It took six months alone to get the paperwork approved and the mandated local guides hired for Libya, one of their few remaining nations. In early March, they were transiting through London en route to what would have been their 187th country and debating whether it was wise to go. “Luckily we didn’t have to make that decision. It was made for us,” Sebova said.
To reach Libya, they needed to fly first to next-door Tunisia. Right before they would have departed, Tunisia enacted a 14-day quarantine for all arrivals, effectively closing the door on Libya and sending them home to Australia. By the time they’ll be able to go again, their visas will have expired, and they’ll have to start the process over.
Like most other prolific country collectors, they said the most challenging aspect of their pursuit is logistics, particularly juggling visas (a process Hawthorne called “unpredictable and opaque”) and booking infrequent flights to rarely-traveled-to countries. People with this goal almost need to like planning travel as much as they enjoy partaking in it.
“It gets very challenging once you get down to having only a few [countries] left, because there’s generally a reason why you haven’t been there,” McCaughey said. “Which ones are the most difficult are constantly changing. Angola was considered to be one of the most difficult because they weren’t issuing tourist visas, but now they have electronic passes, and it’s significantly easier. On the other hand, Iran and Pakistan have become more challenging.”
Several of the least-visited countries are planning to stay closed indefinitely. Island nations Kiribati (in the central Pacific) and Comoros (off Africa’s east coast in the Indian Ocean), which are the second- and eighth-least-visited countries, are both closed until further notice. While extreme travel has always presented innumerable obstacles, a new one travelers will have to grapple with is whether it’s still in their best interest.
Drew Binsky has perhaps the most riding on his final countries: Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Jamaica, Palau and Ghana. He was planning to film a 90-minute documentary with a production team from Los Angeles about his experiences in all of them. The 29-year-old, who produces short travel-related videos to his social media channels, is hoping to leverage his documentary and social media fame into a role as a TV travel host.
While Binksy is eager to resume his quest as soon as possible (he’s eyeing spring 2021 as a possibility), others, like Gina Morello, a 49-year-old from Dallas, aren’t as sure. After years of planning, she’s four countries short and had been slated to finish in June.
“You have this ethical challenge of, ‘Well, I can go to visit this other country, but do I really want to take up their resources, especially if they’re having a difficult time?’ ” Morello said. “ ‘Should I really go there in absence of a [coronavirus] vaccine or rapid testing available?’ Those are the things going through everyone’s head right now.”
While Sebova thinks extreme travel will become more niche in a post-coronavirus world, she doesn’t anticipate it stopping.
“There will still be people who will try even if it is more challenging,” Sebova said. “That’s part of the reason people do it, because it isn’t easy, because not everyone can do it. We enjoy that challenge.”