Steve Fuller had one passport stamp to go. The 71-year-old judge from Kansas City, Missouri, had just spent three days on the Micronesian island of Nauru, the world’s smallest and least-visited republic. After a quick trip to Kiribati—the only country situated in all four hemispheres—he returned to Fiji’s Nadi International Airport for a connection to Tonga. It was February 15, 2020, and he was one flight away from joining a rarefied group of globetrotters who have traveled to every country in the United Nations.
“My family was planning a big party for me when I finished,” says Fuller, who had been plotting out his Oceania island-hopping trip for months. “But I wouldn’t let them do it, because I feared something like this would happen.”
What happened, of course, was the coronavirus outbreak and the ensuing shutdown of travel worldwide. Even though it didn’t catch Fuller off guard, the pandemic did send the prolific country-collector home—and it could change the world of competitive travel for years to come.
Competitive, or extreme, travel is a formerly fringe genre of exploration that has exploded in popularity in recent years. Its adherents, who come from a variety of backgrounds, venture to rarely visited regions and often serve as advocates for destinations and communities that are overlooked by most tourists. But like nearly all categories of travel, the pursuit—and the adventures of its many participants around the globe—suddenly stopped earlier this year.
“It’s going to be impossible to travel the way they did under the current climate,” says Riza Rasco, a cofounder of the Philippine Global Explorers group. “Extreme travelers are still going to want to visit as many places as possible, but the volume and the capacity are going to go down.”
Fuller and Rasco are among the approximately 1,400 members of the Travelers’ Century Club, a global organization for people who have ventured to 100 or more countries and territories. Founded in 1954, the club serves as both a networking group and a source of bragging rights for competitive travelers, who target two primary milestones: visiting the 193 U.N. countries and the 329 destinations currently recognized by the TCC. The latter list, which only 24 people have completed, distinguishes places like Alaska from the Continental U.S., European Turkey from Asian Turkey, and Zanzibar from Tanzania.
The TCC is among a handful of organizations dedicated to competitive travel, each of which has its own methodology. The two most radical examples, Most Traveled People and Nomad Mania, divide the world into 949 and 1,281 destinations, respectively. Nomad Mania also tracks travelers who have completed the U.N. list, a feat that only 12 people had accomplished by the year 2000. Twenty years later, that number has surpassed 200.
The ease of modern travel—and the lure of social-media stardom—has even spawned a new category of competition: high-speed country collecting. In 2017, the 28-year-old American Cassandra De Pecol set a record by visiting 196 countries (the recognized U.N. states plus Kosovo, Palestine, and Taiwan) in 558 days. Fellow American Taylor Demonbreun broke De Pecol’s record in 2018, only to be bested this past November by Anderson Dias, a 25-year-old Brazilian who completed the circuit in 543 days. And, after adding 135 new countries to her list in two-and-a-half years, Jessica Nabongo became the first black woman to visit every country in the world, in October 2019.
If extreme travel was becoming a circumnavigational sprint, the pandemic brought any such antics to a sudden stop—and might create lasting hurdles for competitors. “The pace is going to be slower,” says Rasco. “You’re not going to find travelers who can do all the countries in 500-something days like [Dias] did. That’s going to go away.”
Fuller believes the implications for his fellow travelers will go beyond speed and ease. “This type of travel might end up becoming more of a rich man’s game,” he says. Competitive travel, its adherents are proud to point out, has traditionally not been the exclusive domain of the affluent. “Having money isn’t necessarily what’s needed. It’s passion and drive,” says the TCC’s president, Tim Skeet, who cites a variety of backgrounds and professions among his club’s members. “There’s everything from teachers to lawyers, doctors, and blue-collar workers who figure out how to do it.”
Skeet, an Air Canada airport manager in Calgary, has been to 166 destinations on the TCC list despite a limited budget. “We get creative,” he says. “I have a 2001 Nissan Maxima that still drives perfectly fine. I don’t chase that car payment, because I think, ‘That can get me on another trip.’”
A former biotech executive at DuPont, Rasco spent nine months camping her way through 34 African countries from the back of a repurposed military truck, and she regularly stays in hostels to stretch her time on the road. “I’ve shared rooms with eight people, 12 people, just to try to save money,” she says. On a quest to become one of the first Filipinos in the “193er” club (current count: 161), she fears her budget will become an issue in a post-pandemic world where shared accommodations may not be viable.
Is this the end of competitive traveling?
Extreme travel itself could be a less viable—and relevant—concept. The idea of traveling to as many places as possible suddenly seems outdated and out of touch with issues that were a growing concern long before the coronavirus.
Even the most conscientious competitive travelers have an outsized carbon footprint. While many attempt to soften their impact (the record-setting De Pecol planted trees in the countries she visited), Rasco believes her fellow enthusiasts need to do more.
“I look at what these people do after they’ve completed their journeys, and it’s a little disappointing to me that most of them sit on whatever they learned,” she says. “If you have the privilege of traveling extensively, you need to do something with it, so at least you can justify the environmental impact you’ve caused.”
Rasco gives back through on-the-ground efforts in impoverished and rarely visited regions of West Africa. In 2019, she launched Explore Africa for Impact, a travel company offering trips through Togo and other destinations where tourism infrastructure is lacking. The company contributes 100 percent of net profits to local community projects, including a new school it is building in Sierra Leone.
Exploring the planet’s less-visited regions is one of the upsides to extreme travel. Like the environment, over-tourism is a touchy subject in the travel industry, and the go-everywhere style of country collectors offers a counter to the masses descending on Venice, Paris, and other popular locales.
Skeet, for one, has visited Sipadan Island, Transnistria, and Lampedusa—but he’s never been to New York City. “Our members have been traveling since 1954 to the oddest places,” he says. “And back then, if they got to a place like Chad, people thought, ‘How did you do that?’ or ‘Why did you do that’?”
Blessed Chuksorji-Keefe, an attorney and TCC member based in Washington, D.C., grudgingly concedes that her last trip before the shutdown was to take her daughters, 11 and 8, to Disney World. “We’ve dragged these kids to all these far-flung locales, and they hadn’t been to any of the more typical places,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve always been most interested in having meaningful travel experiences.”
For Fuller, who has been to 282 of the TCC destinations, such experiences come down to connecting with people and cultures. “I like to go around to different places, not the tourist places, and just kind of hang out and meet people,” he says.
“Our motto is ‘World travel: the passport to peace through understanding’,” Skeet says. “How do we understand others if we don’t get out from beyond our own four walls?”
At the moment, most travelers—extreme or otherwise—are stuck within those walls. But while it’s undoubtedly a source of frustration for TCC members, the travel freeze has also made them even more appreciative of the experiences they have had. Chuksorji-Keefe cites a trip she took with her father to his home country of Nigeria in November. “I’ve had Nigeria on my list forever, so finally making it there is really the culmination of all of my travel dreams,” she says. “Any time I feel bad about my immediate travel prospects, I think about that time in Nigeria, because I don’t know when I’ll be able to do it again.”