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.