Wait, When Did Wanderlust Become a Competitive Sport?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 22 2011 5:16 PM

The World's Most Traveled Man

How wanderlust turned into a competitive sport.

Also in Slate, read Seth Stevenson's review of Ken Jennings' Maphead.

Travel. Click image to expand.
Country collectors compete to see who can visit the most places

They sound like the fictional settings for fantasy novels or pulp adventures: the Maluku Archipelago, the Kingdom of Mustang, Peter I Island, the Republic of Bashkortostan. No, even better—they sound like once-real places from the not-so-distant past, colonial artifacts that you might still find on an outdated thrift-shop globe, alongside Bechuanaland, the Gold Coast, and Trucial Oman. But these are all real destinations, common entries on the checklists and wish lists of a new breed of traveler spawned by the Jet Age: the country collector.

Country collectors accumulate visits to places the way philatelists accumulate stamps and grandmothers accumulate Hummel figurines. It is their life's work. They are slaves to a pair of diverse passions that turn out not to be mutually exclusive: the adventurer's love of exploration, and the anal-retentive's love for crossing things off lists.

The 193 member states of the United Nations are far too small a canvas for these hardy souls. Why, they argue, should a trip to the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean count the same as a trip to Wales, just because both are British soil? So they divide and subdivide the Earth's dry land into endless permutations. Guinness once kept a secret 265-destination list to adjudicate travel records. The Traveler's Century Club, an American country-collecting organization largely made up of wealthy retirees, uses a 321-entry list. The American Radio Relay League's checklist is 341 places long. Jeff Shea, a Singapore-based mega-traveler, has even compiled the SISO (Shea International Standards Organization) list: 3,978 destinations, purportedly comprising every political subdivision on Earth, from the 34 wilayats of Afghanistan to the 10 provinces of Zimbabwe.

Perhaps the most influential list is maintained by the members of MostTraveledPeople.com. The site was founded in 2005 by Charles Veley, a software executive who had made his millions on the dot-com boom and then spent the next three years on a whirlwind tour of the Traveler's Century Club checklist, becoming at age 37 the youngest person in the club's history to cover the whole globe. Annoyed at Guinness World Records for having retired its "Most Traveled Person" record, and at the TCC for refusing to validate his itinerary to Guinness, he founded his own website with its own geographical breakdown. His members—the site has registered over 12,000 travelers—vote on which places get to join its master list, which now numbers 872 territories. In theory, all these places should be geographically or culturally distinct somehow, but with a destination-hungry electorate like this, it's a rare territory on Earth  that doesn't make the cut. (Sorry, Jervis Bay Territory of New South Wales and Vojvodina, Serbia! Better luck next time, Northwest Angle, Minnesota!)

Veley's new list, not surprisingly, gave him the crown that Guinness and the TCC would not: that of the world's most traveled man. This ruffled some feathers among the world's other top travelers. For centuries, the life of a traveler was a fairly lonely pursuit; global nomads ran into each other infrequently, if at all. Thanks to the Internet, they can all now find each other—and there is a scoreboard. It's no longer enough to go all the places you want to go. Now you have to watch your competitors in the rear-view mirror as well. Friendships have formed, but so have bitter rivalries.

In his charming book Meetings with Remarkable Travelers, Spain's Jorge Sanchez (currently No. 5 in the MTP rankings) recounts a boat trip up the Lena River in Siberia that he planned in 2009 for the world's top 10 travelers. He discovers that this is a task more or less on par with booking hip-hop acts for the Source Awards or planning a slumber party for a clique of high-school girls. Everyone has a beef with the guest list. "These Americans are like children!" he fumes at all the checklist bickering.

Veley himself feels that travelers who take his rankings too seriously have missed the point of travel. "We're talking about something that's supposed to be enjoyable and fulfilling and about bonding with new people," he tells me. "Not creating walls." But others find that the checklist itself can ruin the travel experience. Many veteran travelers sniffed at Veley's record-breaking circumnavigations because he seemed more concerned with speed than actually getting to know the world, counting places like Iraq and Abkhazia, for example, because he paid off guards to let him stick a toe across a border. Jorge Sanchez counts the world's real top travelers as men like French author André Brugiroux and German cyclist Heinz Stücke, low-profile types who will never compete in any club. They care more about depth of travel than breadth. When you compare them to the top country collectors, he tells me, "the difference in quality of travel is abysmal."

American Lee Abbamonte is still ranked No. 15 on MostTraveledPeople.com, but no longer records his geographic conquests there, because the size of the checklist has gotten out of control. "I would never want to venture time and money to touch a nothing rock sticking out of the water in the North Sea somewhere just to say I did it," he says. Nor is he a fan of the site's new pay model. Charles Veley spent over $100,000 out of his own pocket to build the site, hoping to fund it with ad sales or outside investment. When that proved futile, he was forced to start charging users for subscriptions just to keep the site going.

His travel life has changed as well. Once a slave to his "collection," Veley soon discovered that the checklist was just a means to an end—a way to find remote new destinations and swap tips with fellow travelers. His trips became more leisurely, more social, more adventurous. He's ridden the famed "Death Train" to the Bolivia-Brazil border, cast nets with the village fishermen of Galle, Sri Lanka, and tracked gorillas in Rwanda. "He travels in quality," says Sanchez approvingly, "visiting the countries in a proper way, overland."  Sanchez is no stranger to the dangers of this "proper" kind of travel; he proudly includes on his website a page full of deportation and expulsion documents from trouble spots over the globe, including a five-year prison sentence in Afghanistan for espionage charges.

In a crushing irony, though, MTP's top-ranked traveler (Veley still leads his closest rival, Bill Altaffer of San Diego, by just six countries) now mostly travels for business, back and forth between San Francisco and Washington. In debt after the Internet bubble collapse and a more recent divorce, Veley has gone back to work for the tech company he co-founded, and his plans to see the last 50 spots on his checklist are on hold. "If I have time and the energy," he sighs about his current trips, "I might get out and find a favorite restaurant or walk down a favorite street. But my time's not really my own."

For now, Kurdistan, Mellish Reef, and the Corn Islands of Nicaragua will have to wait. The world's most traveled man is, for the moment, just another road warrior on the red-eye to Dulles.

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