Destination Validation: When Have You Really ‘Been There’?

Country stamps of travel

A recent article in the British travel press saw a freelance writer taking her baby daughter along with her around the world. It’s an admirable move and incidentally gives the girl some amazing bragging rights when she grows up, but it made me wonder: could that baby, when an adult, really say she has experienced these countries if she only has photos, and no memories, to rely on?

Whilst the article was about the logistics of working parent duties rather than said bragging rights, it spurred me into thinking about the many different ways we measure ‘doing’ a country or a destination. Just Google ‘travel blog + country counting’ and you’ll see there are plenty of people out there with a tally to monitor. There’s even a prestigious Travelers’ Century Club (American spelling) for those who’ve reached the precious 100 milestone. So, for everyday adventurers not indicted into any club, what could potentially be considered as a valid tick from the list?

Competitive country counting
One-upmanship taken to new heights. Credit: Meme Generator.

Is it when you’ve…

  • Landed on a plane there?
  • Physically crossed the border and gone through customs?
  • Travelled outside the airport?
  • Got firmly defined memories of your time there?
  • Spent more than 48 hours in a place?
  • Not just visited for a work conference?
  • Been to the top 10 attractions?
  • Consciously avoided the top 10 attractions in favour of alternatives?
  • Tried local food for breakfast, lunch and dinner?
  • Held a conversation with a resident in their language?
  • Systematically toured rural and urban areas?
  • Been to the grittier side of town that isn’t on a tourist’s agenda?
  • Seen beyond the capital city?
  • Stayed with a local family?
  • Not travelled as a group?
  • Visited more than five times?
  • Experienced political milestones, like Berlin before, during and after the wall?
  • Been employed there?
  • Lived there?

As I’ve previously mentioned on the blog, I do find it hard not to be jealous of people who’ve been to 50, 70, 100+ countries, but I also wonder how they can do each one justice. I’m not questioning the quantity they’ve racked up, but the quality and the insight gathered along the way. Unless you’re a full-time traveller with time to spare, how can you really understand a destination? Yes, you’ve ticked somewhere off your list, but what did your visit include, and did you cut corners?

Border crossing USA
One leg in Canada, one in America. I’m wearing terrible shorts in either country.

For example, when I was 10 years old, I spent a few weeks in Canada. It was, as the cliché goes, a holiday of a lifetime, and one of my adventures involved hopping across the border to America for a day, to visit a town called Lynden. This theoretically meant I could say the USA was ‘done’, yet my experience was so marginal it could hardly count. I loved my little day trip to the friendly but rather backwards town full of olde-worlde shops (think antiques and kitsch crafts), yet this was nowhere near a complete picture of American life. In fact, it was more like a living museum.

Five years later, taking on New York and Vermont was so wildly different from my last trip that it could have been a separate nation. On subsequent visits to America, I’ve seen more of New York and added Washington and Boston to my checklist, but I still don’t feel I’m done. I haven’t seen the deserts and the dustbowl, the deep south or the crazy excesses of Los Angeles. I haven’t marvelled at Yosemite or got under the skin of Detroit. You could even argue I wouldn’t be finished until I’d set foot in every single state, because they each have their own identity and atmosphere.

Vintage travel mountainside
How much of the landscape do you need to see to understand a place?

On a destination level, I can’t help thinking back to an American lady I met in Newquay this year at an art festival. She was excitedly telling everyone how she was spending 90 days in Cornwall, and I was keen to hear her packed itinerary – after all, there is so much to see in the area, and every village has its own story. “Oh, I’m just spending time in Newquay,” she said. “I did go down to Land’s End on the bus, but it took so long I couldn’t be bothered to get out when I arrived, so I just stayed on for the return journey.” A few of us at the festival suggested some places she might like to try, such as the Eden Project, Fowey and Padstow, but she didn’t seem overly keen. Yet she was going to go home and boast to her friends that she’d spent three months discovering Cornwall, and they’d be none the wiser. Similarly, if she’d been raving about an extended break in London, anyone who lives outside the capital would happily tell you that London is its own little bubble and doesn’t truly represent the diversity and quirks of Britain.

Whilst we can all come up with our own measure of country counting, I believe we should be more frank about what we’ve actually seen or done on our travels. I am well aware that I haven’t seen enough of the countries I’ve visited, and I also have a growing list of places in the UK that I’d like to spend time in (Liverpool, Whitby, Glasgow, Portmeirion, the Isle of Skye, etc.). Maybe the real takeaway needs to be that you can never finish exploring, because there’s always more to learn about.

Children by signpost in South America
A few destinations to tick off, with distances measured from Peru’s Taquile Island.

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Have your say – what do you think about keeping a tally? Are you keen to reach a certain figure of countries? I’d love to know.