Before he turned 40, Harry Mitsidis had travelled to every country in the world. He could have stopped there. Instead, he set about creating a new list of places to tick off. Siobhan Downes speaks to the man behind one of the world's top systematic travel clubs.
Many of us keep some kind of record of the countries we've visited. It could take the form of a list scribbled in the back of a travel journal, an online quiz that reveals how well-travelled you are, or even one of those kitschy scratch maps.
The implied goal is that within your lifetime, you'll eventually manage to tick off them all. But for some extreme travellers, that's not enough. What qualifies as having really travelled the world? How do you include all the territories, island groups, enclaves and exclaves that fall outside the list of 193 countries officially recognised by the United Nations?
Harry Mitsidis reckons he has the magic number. The 47-year-old is the founder of Nomad Mania, an online travel club where members can record their travel achievements (the website used to be called "The Best Travelled").
According to his carefully considered criteria, the world can be divided up into 1281 regions. The idea is once you've visited them all, you can truly say you've travelled to every corner of the globe.
Mitsidis is - perhaps unsurprisingly - ranked the number one traveller on Nomad Mania, having visited 1183 regions at the time of writing. Here, he shares his system for counting countries, including that controversial question - does touching down at the airport ever count?
What sparked your passion for travel?
My parents were from different countries, so from the very start I was exposed to two cultures - we were coming and going between Greece and the UK. When you're two or three and you learn how to switch languages and environments, that gets ingrained in your head.
What was the point when you decided you wanted to visit every country in the world?
It wasn't really a moment where I looked in the mirror and said, "now I'm going to visit every country". I had been to about 50 countries by the time I was 27. I don't know what happened, but I started wanting to travel more.
I did Afghanistan in 2003 - it was my 100th country. I think then, because Afghanistan had always been this no-go zone, I thought, well, nothing else is really difficult anymore, so let me go ahead and do them all. I finished in early 2008.
What is your travel style - do you prefer fast or slow travel?
Until I finished the countries, I had quite a normal life. I was a lecturer - I taught management. That meant I had some decent holidays. But I could never really go off for months and months on end. I'd say my style was always relatively well-planned, with return tickets booked.
Now, Nomad Mania is my only employment. So I'm able to travel more, and I take a longer time.
Tell me about Nomad Mania. What was the inspiration behind the website?
When I finished the countries, I was left with this feeling of, now what? For most people, getting to every country is a life goal. I did my last country when I was 36.
Being someone who's really curious, I was thirsting for more. In my mind, I like having an organised way of approaching things. I wanted a list that was big enough to be a real challenge, and would last a long time. But at the same time, not so massive that it wouldn't be doable. So I found a couple of other people like me online and we developed this list.
Initially, I didn't have any plan of creating a website, but then I thought, wait a minute, this is a good list of regions, I think it does a fairly good job of dividing the world - I'd like more people to access it and embrace it. The initial site, The Best Travelled, launched seven years ago. I don't think I ever imagined it would become one of the credible lists and sites in the travel community of this type.
How did you come up with this 'standard' for world travellers?
I wanted a list that gives every country a relative worth. So take Fiji - if you divide Fiji in two regions, then obviously you need to divide New Zealand into more because it's bigger; it has a much bigger population, it has a bigger impact in world affairs, and it has much more to see. But then if you divide New Zealand into, say, four regions, then how many do you divide Australia into? And how much do you divide China, or the US? Ultimately, I thought a total figure around 1200 is a reasonable number.
Obviously it's not perfect science. But we looked at it in terms of five criteria - the size of the country, the population, cultural diversity, economic importance in the world.
The last thing we looked at was tourist appeal. We came up with an ideal number of regions per country, given that we want a total of about 1200. We ultimately came up with 1281.
What do you think is the benefit of creating a list like this?
Many people say, "I've been to London, I know the UK". It's like, wait a minute, you don't know the UK, you know London. The idea is that countries deserve more than just the one place which most people go to. I think this is the case everywhere.
In New Zealand, things are different in the North Island compared to the South Island. Obviously, you want to go to both. I think our list gives people the motivation to explore countries in depth.
How long do you think you have to spend in a place to be able to say you've been there?
This is one of the hardest questions within the travel community. I absolutely reject airports, train stations and other forms of transit, as transport hubs are not what any place is about. I would say that a lasting memory - an ability to picture a place clearly in your mind and to conjure the effect of it on all five senses - is a good guide.
Some people demand an overnight stay, but I wouldn't go so far.
What sort of people are members of Nomad Mania? Are they full-time travellers like yourself?
We currently have around 7500 members. The people who are top ranked tend to be like me. You can call us crazed travellers, and that might be why the current name is Nomad Mania. But it's really a mixed bag.
There are many people in there who've done maybe 40 or 50 countries. They may not have the time or the means to do more, but they still like the concept of the site.
Do you think travel has almost become a competitive sport?
Many people think sites like Nomad Mania promote competitive travel. I disagree with this. Some people may compete, this is true - they may want to go around and say, "look at me, I've been to all these places". But I think real travellers are always about the experience, and learning from the places they're going to.
I would call it systematic travel, rather than competitive travel. It's about putting things in order and giving you goals which should serve your own interests.
There's a lot of talk about travel's environmental impact - especially air travel. Is this something you think about?
I know my carbon footprint is up there, and I feel really guilty. At the same time, although obviously everyone needs to do their share, I think it's the big guys who need to do their share more.
Ultimately, I guess the desire to see more and do more is stronger than the belief that I can make a difference by not travelling and not having a carbon footprint. I feel that by going to places and interacting with locals who often haven't had much exposure to tourists and seeing the delight on their faces, that gives happiness and value to travelling in this way.
OK, I might have a carbon footprint which is a bad thing, but at the same time, I'm giving some positivity there.
What's your favourite destination in the world?
I feel that one country out of all of them is just so unfair. I prefer to answer in terms of continents. I'll go with Colombia in the Americas, Ethiopia in Africa, Portugal in Europe, Japan and Iran in Asia - they're so different - and in Oceania, I'll go with Tuvalu.
So what will you do when you've completed all 1281 regions? Will you have to come up with another list?
I sincerely doubt I will ever complete the 1281 regions. I may be less than 10 per cent away from the goal, but the remaining places are very hard to do.
Nomad Mania already has a huge number of lists of things to see and do in places, so I think I will mostly aim at following some of these.