How many countries are there in the world?

From lowest count to highest, here is the range of differing opinions on what makes a country a country, and more importantly, what counts as a ´real´country.

Although the UN is often the default count for people to believe, its not that clear what their official number is. I´ve seen both 193 and 195, since Taiwan and the Vatican have some strange non-member observer status. Then there´s Kosovo, which over a hundred of those member states recognize, but not the UN body. UNESCO, a branch of the UN, has a member list of 195, including Palestine but excluding the Holy See and Taiwan from the UN list, plus 11 associate members.

This pushes the count up to 206, which the National Olympic Committee also has, but they no longer recognise Curacao, Gibraltar, the Faroe Islands, Macau or New Caledonia. Though they used to be part of the International Olympic Committee, they now have to compete through their parent nations (Netherlands, the UK, Denmark, China, France) though the Faroes and Macao are allowed to athletes as their own in the Paralympics.

FIFA says there are 211 registered football teams in the world from different countries (the UK is split into its 4 countries), excluding some UN countries, since not every country in the world has a national men´s football team (ie. Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Monaco, Nauru, Palau, Tuvalu and the Vatican).

Couchsurfing has over 230 countries, and claims to have a registered host in every country in the world. With 2 million users, this is definitely possible, but the truth is its hard to find hosts in countries where the site is illegal, like Iran, where there is only one host, like in Wallis & Futuna, or where the site is nonexistent, like in North Korea.

The highest count is over 300. The Centenary Club, an elite members only group of travelers, counts 327 countries and territories.

If you ask me, the definition of a country isn´t rocket science. If you pass a border or showed a passport, had to apply for a visa, or use a totally different currency and maybe a new language, then you´re probably in a different country. I definitely stand by the fact that every time I went to Greenland, I was not in Denmark, and French Guyana is nothing like France except for the euro currency. I actually think its strangest that everyone can agree to call the Holy See a separate country, but others have more problems with territories and their status. I’m somewhere in the middle, with about 245 countries on my horizon, of which 25 I have left to visit.

Host City for FIFA 2010 World Cup

Of course the influence of the 2010 World Cup deserves some mention, since it felt like the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics all over again. Visa and Coca Cola sponsorships monopolised almost all advertising space in the shops, restaurants, billboards, cereal boxes, and tv commercials. Hype of the incoming influx of tourists was affecting all businesses, and the concern for crime and safety spurred officials to come up with all sorts of public announcements and positive messages to create that perfect, FIFA-host city image. Ironically enough, I never really felt threatened or concerned for my safety, and Im not sure if it was just luck or being in the right places or with the right people, but in general I found South Africans to be super friendly and smiley, always greeting you, making eye contact, and asking how I was. Their willingness to converse definitely contradicted any learnt presumptions to feel guarded, and even when unconvincing car guards in ‘official’ reflective vests offered to watch your car, I still felt like they were just trying to make a living, not threatening to break into your car if you didn’t tip them – something I’ve felt in more tame places like San Francisco.

The most telling incident of how laid back some South Africans really are was in Johannesburg Airport; the airport security woman who was directing people from the line to the next security screening station was doing so by dancing her way to the left and to the right, humming a small tune and smiling at you if you didn’t respond with a chuckle. Then the man at the x-ray machine who then told me to take my shoes and belt off next asked me why I was so cross, and I realised they actually disliked passengers who took the security checkpoint too seriously. If only it was like that in American airports!

The FIFA explosion in Cape Town also meant the sound of a vuvuzela was never far off, and almost every car had either a South African flag pegged up in the window, or both the rearview mirrors of the car wore these sock-like covers that displayed the South African flag on both sides when looking head on. As much as the World Cup inspired national pride, excitement, and arguably some form of unity within the Nation, it was still just another international event that cost a lot of money to run and created hidden incentives for all sorts of people and corporations to try and maximize personal gain from the games. You really couldn’t get away from Coke, Visa or Soccer in any corner of the city, and with many over-promised, under-delivered benefits and opportunities of the games to the local community just meant building frustration and anti-FIFA sentiments in much of the community. For those thousands who were interested in somehow participating in the events or supporting their country, the costs and limited availability of both tickets, accommodation and transportation to the games still meant many loyal fans were excluded.

While both praise and criticisms are endless for FIFA, the short- and long-term effects of having the World Cup hosted for the first time on African Soil are still uncertain. They at least have a big, brand new stadium in the center of town, an iconic building for their changed city-scape, and personally, I thought the suspenseful buzz of Cape Town and everyone’s concern to have the city on its best behaviour meant a very positive tourist experience.