Meet the Worlds most travelled man
By Jakob Øster, April, 2019
According to the website NomadMania Harry Mitsidis is the worlds most travelled man. He was born in 1972 in London to a Greek farther and a South African mother.
In 2008 at the age of 36 he had visited all the 193 UN countries. To date he has visited 1183 of the Worlds 1281 regions and on his way to those he has almost visited every UN-country a second time. In the process he has flown on more different Airlines than any other person.
Among the top travellers’ many crazy experiences are spending the night with refugees from Tajikistan and being arrested and sent to jail in Yemen.
When not travelling he has founded and funded and now operates the NomadMania website – in my opinion the best statistical and overall website for the most travelled people in the World.
This interview is part of a series of interviews with some of the World’s most famous travellers – read more interviews here.
Important note: In regards to the records and the reference ‘The Worlds most travelled man’. These are my words – not his – since Harry as it is explained further below does not travel to set records.
How many times have you flown?
I am a little bit of a geek and I have kept a meticulous record of all my flights since 1986, when I was 14 – the ones before are approximations. My records tell me that today I have done 2892 flights. Each segment is counted as a flight, for example if I fly Copenhagen-Istanbul-Mogadishu
and change planes in Istanbul, this is two flights (but the stopover in Djibouti where I don’t get off the plane does not count). I will probably fly my 3000th flight before the end of the year.
How many different airlines have you flown on?
Again, I record my airlines too and this one is accurate. 445 airlines, some of which no longer exist. The latest ‘new’ airline was Peruvian a few weeks ago. The only claim I feel I have to being ‘number one’ is with airlines – I think even the most diehard aviation fan may have trouble getting more airlines than this.
Could you tell one funny airline story?
Absolutely. Last summer I flew on ‘Air Taxi Benin’ from Parakou in northern Benin to the capital Cotonou. Obviously, this is a small airline, probably with just that one Cessna Caravan, so I needed to email them to reserve a ticket. I ended up sending the money through Western Union and communicating with Aziza from the reservations team through Whatsapp. Now that’s what I call personalised service! And then when we landed in Cotonou, they had a film-crew waiting to interview the passengers (there were 3 of us!). I was flabbergasted, having to speak impromptu French for Benin television. But this is what is great about Africa, there is always a surprise, even when it’s a flight!
What is the worst airline you have ever flown with?
I am very tempted to say British Airways. Their service is so low class at high prices. The now defunct Cameroon Airways was pretty bad in that I didn’t end up flying with them, as they cancelled the flight at the gate. However, after lots of unfriendly experiences, I don’t fly any U.S. carriers as a matter of principle, so I think collectively, they are the worst.
What is the most interesting person you have met during your travels?
There are very many fascinating travellers out there who I have met and have made a big impression. But in the end, I think I will collectively name my couch-surfing hosts in Iran as the most interesting people from my perspective, as it gave me a chance to really understand their lives, how they think and feel and what average middle-class Iranians go through. That was fascinating, and they were all equally interesting, even those who didn’t speak English. We went bowling in Mashhad, that is one of my happiest memories ever. Such kindness keeps my days bright even years later. So, it’s them, Melika, Behzad, Ali and the gang. Oddly enough, two of them are now in the US and one couple have ended up in Toronto.
When have you been most surprised on all your travels?
How human most people are, and how friendly. Every time I travel it is the same. I get this confirmation that human beings are generally great. More so in developing countries. But still, this humanity somehow always surprises me. Maybe because deep down I am a pessimist. So, travel becomes my potion of hope.
What or who do you think inspired you to become a traveller?
Probably my father in his way. For his age and circumstances, he is a big traveller, maybe not all that adventurous but certainly curious about the world and wanting to see as much as possible. With my mother, they crossed the then Eastern bloc countries by car in 1965, when nobody went to Romania or Hungary. So, I think it is his DNA that gave me this sweet ‘disease’, I have just expanded this considerably.
When we met in Copenhagen in October it sounded like you were close to finishing visiting every country a second time. When do you plan to finish this? And are you going for a third round?
I don’t have a specific plan. I am done with rushing like a mad chicken, like I did the first time. I now have 17 countries to go for the second round, 14 in Africa and 3 in the Pacific, but really I am in no hurry at all, and I don’t want to go to some countries such as Libya or South Sudan until I can really go round and experience the places. So, we will see. Third round to those I like most, absolutely, I’m already doing this and have visited more than 100 countries at least three times. But not to the ones that I like less.
What motivates you to keep travelling so much?
Curiosity and boredom at home. The desire to see everything. If I don’t cross a border every two weeks, I start not being able to breathe. The good thing is that going anywhere does the job. Even a day trip to Brussels.
The inevitable question: These days there is a lot of focus on lowering our carbon footprint. Have you ever considered cutting down on flights for this reason?
The flights will run whether I am on them or not. I think only if I cycled would I not leave a carbon footprint – cars and trains are pretty bad too. It’s not that I don’t care about the environment. But let’s leave it to the Trumps and the Putins of the world to make a difference. I’m sure they’ll do a great job *smirk*
A famous quote says that ‘the road is more important than the goal’ – what is most important to you?
The experience is most important. The feeling that I am understanding a place and how people live. In some cases, the road shows you this, in others the goal.
Is there some country that you will never go back to – and if so why?
Gambia is my worst country – find it awful on every single count. I have now been there twice and I am pretty sure that nothing will motivate me to return there and subject myself to dreadful officials, nothing much to see, annoying locals who see you as a bank, sweltering heat etc… Many
African countries have redeeming locals who make it all worthwhile, but in Gambia I found the locals to sometimes be even worse than the corrupt officials. My last time there, these young Czech backpackers ahead of me were (willingly) paying a bribe at the border… they didn’t ask me for one, as they perhaps feared I would complain to the British embassy and they’d get into trouble.
Are there other countries that you for some reason really do not like?
There are some others I also don’t like but I usually give places the benefit of the doubt and often I feel that maybe I haven’t seen or experienced enough and, if I try harder, then for sure a good impression will come out of it. In general, I am not a fan of small island nations as I feel they have little to see and do and a good beach is not enough – Malta and Sao Tome & Principe are two bright exceptions though, they are small but really interesting.
How did you start and when did you find out that you wanted to become a world traveller?
I started young, travelling with my parents. I can’t say I travelled particularly much until my late 20s. My records say I did my 50th country, which was Portugal, when I was 27. Sure, I had done most of Europe by then, and some places beyond. I think something changed in me around the late ‘90s. To a certain extent I gave up on finding love, and I also got really disillusioned after
getting an MBA and then being unable to get a good job – I realised it was because I didn’t believe in the corporate life at all and this showed in the interviews. And when trying to find what I really wanted, the only answer that satisfied me was the desire to fly away, explore and see new places. Initially I never thought this would be ‘world’ travel. I started with a trip to some of the ‘stans’ which in 2000 were still really off the beaten track. I finished every European country in 2001. Then I did most of Central America and before I knew it, I was in Afghanistan which I had always wanted to see. After that, nothing else seemed difficult anymore and the idea of doing everything became a distinct possibility.
What did your family think of all your travelling?
They still think I’m mad. They really don’t get it. Even my father who is deep down an explorer. I think they are too used to the confines of the world and the norms of what a usual life should look life. My partner doesn’t get it at all either. I have learned to be two people with almost two distinct personalities – home Harry and travel Harry.
Do you think you could have ended up not being a world traveller – ie. just having a ‘normal’ life/career?
No, no way. I do think I could have ended up doing nothing and just being on a beach watching TV Series. Or focusing a lot on one of my other quirky interests. I considered becoming an astrologer and even started studying an astrology course. Or I could have really invested in becoming an ‘insider’ in the world of the Eurovision Song Contest. But in the end, I think the pull of travel seemed much more meaningful. And every time I flirted with a ‘normal’ life I would just ask myself what the benefit and the meaning of that really was. Once you have stretched yourself and become a ‘bigger’ person through travel, I think a normal life just seems like a prison.
How do you fund all your travels?
Real estate. That is always the best way. Plus, despite appearances, my travels are not really all that expensive. I don’t have kids, and I don’t buy things in general.
In my opinion Nomad Mania is the best travel website out there for keeping statistics of the most travelled people in the World. You had this professional website developed, build, modified and you now operate it through your own expenses. I think that is a very generous thing to do. Why did you do it?
I’ll tell you a secret. The site was built based on anger. I was angry at the existing sites for having lists that didn’t make much rational sense, for allowing transits as visits and for not really communicating with their members or checking that those listed are telling the truth. So, my anger turned me into this creative being and I took it from there. I didn’t really know what I was doing at all. Fast forward to today… People say how lucky I am that I don’t have a job. But I really do. I often put in 10-hour days on NomadMania. I do it because I like it and it has given me back a lot in terms of the network with the travel community. But it really is not sustainable in terms of my time. I am looking to find a permanent assistant and then hopefully partially retire. In terms of being generous, I am conscious of my good fortune. This is my gift to the world. My little tiny contribution.
NomadMania – the website that you have founded – divides the world into 1281 Regions. You have visited almost 1.200 of these – more than any other member of Nomad Mania. Some of your remaining regions are among the most dangerous places on earth. What are your thoughts on visiting the most tricky – and possibly very dangerous – remaining regions such as those in Libya, South Sudan, Congo, Afghanistan etc.?
For the record, while I am quite near 1200, I will probably not reach that number anytime soon, let alone go much higher than that. I am about to take a long break. And although people seem to think I want to complete the list, this is also not true. Afghanistan – yes, because it is really fascinating and I still have a lot to see there. DR Congo yes as Kinshasa is one of only 5 capitals that I’m still missing and the other 4 are all ‘easy’. But I would never put myself in a really dodgy situation, I research things carefully and am reasonable. I can’t see myself visiting South Sudan again any time soon. There are limits to what I am willing to do for just a tick on a list.
I have heard a rumour that you went to Mogadishu without informing your partner where you were going. Could you comment on that.. – and are you going to inform your partner before venturing to other dangerous regions?
Yes, it’s true. I think it is pointless to stress those you love when they don’t really fully understand what travelling implies. I remember, I was in the Central African Republic – a country in an endless state of conflict and instability – when the attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester happened. The local guide said, quite frankly ‘Just as well you are safe here with us’. This is so ironic and yet from his perspective, Manchester suddenly became this very dangerous place. And so, all I can say is, perceptions of danger depend a lot on information and understanding. I am not willing to have people I love stress too much when they lack both. So, in this case, ignorance is bliss. My visits to dangerous places are always really short anyway.
I know you to be a very modest person and I have read that you don’t like to be announced as ‘the most travelled person in the world’ or ‘probably the most travelled person in the world’ – even though that is what you are – at least according to the Nomad Mania website. Obviously, any media running a story about you would be likely to emphasize this. What are your thoughts on this? – and are you not just a tiny little bit fueled by a desire to be the most travelled person on the planet?
I really dislike media’s emphasis on the best, on number one, on quantity. This may sound a bit contradictory given NomadMania is full of numbers, but the concept was just to create a reasonable list of travel divisions that are challenging enough but also doable and worthy of a visit. The media should just focus on interesting travel experiences and stories. I am quite honestly not fuelled by any desire to be the biggest traveller around and I don’t even believe there is such a person, because there is no objective measure of ‘biggest’. Yes, I am first on NomadMania today. But does that really mean anything? On one of the esteemed lists, one of the people who was number one at a time was this traveller who has done most places landing and leaving on the same plane out. He was happy with himself being number one and was quoted in lots of publications. Is this really a traveller? I let you decide. One of the reasons NomadMania has invested so much on the Series – which are mainly qualitative lists of everything there is to see out there during one’s travels from caves to festivals – is to show a whole palette of experiences. I am nowhere near number one on these, except for airports and airlines. So, as a conscientious traveller I honestly feel I’m still a beginner, there are loads of things to see out there and my plan is to focus on these and get the most out of what our world has to offer. I’m starting from near home – I am going to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds for the first time in April!
You have said that: “In the process of seeing, sensing, meeting, understanding and comparing, travelling has become my way of life, and staying put has become increasingly hard”. Do you think you will ever be able to settle permanently down/not travel?
No, it is clear to me that this is impossible. What I would like to do though is to spend a good part of my time in Europe. People seem to think that travel somehow always implies ‘difficult travel to distant places’. But being from a mixed marriage, I don’t really belong to any country but really I feel European. I enjoy many European places much more and am really glad there are so many towns and villages still to see and explore which are not so far from home, or rather, they are part of my home – Europe. And from my perspective, doing Europe in this way will be almost like ‘settling down’.
What are your overall favourite places for travelling?
I really love Vancouver, Canada, for its fantastic location and its general atmosphere. Iguazu Falls is a ‘classic’ natural site that really blew me away. A quirky surprise was Iquique in Chile, that’s a pleasant town I could lounge in for a week or so. Ethiopia as a whole is amazing – it offers so much culturally, from tribes to a deep Christian heritage, and from a natural perspective, it’s like 10 countries in one. The Sapanta cemetery in Romania is probably my favourite place in the world (it helps that I speak Romanian so I can understand the tombstones) – they are laughing at death straight into its face, that is really tongue-in-cheek. Istanbul probably has the best location in the world, and Turkish food is irresistible. Luang Prabang is also incredible. The single man-made site that impacted me most was the Potala Palace in Lhasa. When I first saw it, I was stunned for about 10 minutes just staring at it from a distance. I generally don’t like islands but today I landed in Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas islands (am writing this here) and this is the closest I have been to paradise, there is an alpine-like forest in the middle of the island and then a tropical volcanic beach half an hour away, fabulous. We are very lucky to live in such a beautiful world. Even though it may seem crazy at times, at the end of the day, our planet and life itself are miraculous. And yes, we need to try harder to preserve all this. Including limiting our carbon footprints.
If you had to give up travelling what would you do instead?
At this stage, I hope this never happens. In theory – I would manage NomadMania.
You have said in an interview that if you should start over you might pursue a job as a war correspondent. Do you have no fear at all travelling to war torn countries/taking things a step too far?
I stand by that statement. Yes, if I could go back, I would probably study journalism and then opt to go to where all the trouble is. I think this may be because I am drawn to human misery and distress somehow. No, I have no real fear, don’t ask me why. I think my biggest fear is not to be free. Compared to this, everything else is manageable. Also, if I really were a correspondent, I wouldn’t be alone. There would be a team. That would be family, in a way.
How did you become so focused on travelling?
I’m kind of a drifter without any real life-plan. I think when I realised just how average society expects you to be, I gave up on the rules and decided to just reject the norm and do my thing.
If somebody had told you when you were in your teens that you would become one of the biggest travellers on the planet – would you have believed them?
No, probably not. I was a very shy introvert as a teenager, devouring movies every day (I’ve seen everything made in 1985 and 1986!), living a rather sheltered, ordinary life in an average area of Athens, Greece. That’s not the kind of background I would have thought world travellers tend to have. Of course, over time I have realised we come in all shapes and sizes so there is certainly no way of knowing how a person will develop and what he will turn into. What is best about the community is how diverse its members are.
Most big travellers agree that the world is so much less dangerous than it is portrayed by the media. What is your view on this?
Yes, this is true. The media love creating fear. They have their agenda. Luckily, we know better than this. It doesn’t mean there isn’t danger out there, but it’s usually much more manageable than portrayed. People buy fear and multiply it and end up becoming both paranoid and intolerant. Even I was not immune. I crossed from the US into Mexico at Laredo in 2010 absolutely shaking with fear after everything the Americans had told me about Mexico. Luckily within a few hours I realized I was in what was to become one of my favourite countries.
You have said that you don’t like spending the night in places that are too rough/dirty/cheap – what is the worst place you have ever spent the night?
When I first visited Astana – now renamed Nursultan – I stayed at a hostel mainly for refugees from Tajikistan. This was truly a dire place in every way. At the time I had a really limited budget. I’m glad that those days are behind me. I don’t think staying in such a dump proves anything to anybody, and it certainly isn’t ‘fun’.
I know you to be a very kind, knowledgeable and correct person – do you also have another side? Or how do you deal with people treating you roughly like when you were put in jail in Yemen?
I was talking to my friend Joao Paulo yesterday – another world traveller who has done all 193 UN countries – and he told me I am the most complex person he has ever met. So, I guess I do have a number of sides. When I was arrested in Yemen, it was entirely my fault, I crossed the border illegally and got busted for this, so it was entirely ok in theory, though it was scary as hell. I did pull quite a defiant performance though telling them that if they don’t release me so I get back to my job in Oman, I will lose my job, in which case I don’t care, I might as well stay in jail forever and they can take care of me. I think my defiance in that tough situation surprised me. I am also rather opinionated and can be inflexible with my opinions, which may not always be ‘correct’, though I do try to be democratic. I try to be correct with people because I think most of them see my life as the dream life – it isn’t, not at all, but from their perspective I understand them, so why not be fair with everyone.
Which three people in history do you admire the most – and why?
If it has to be limited to people in history, I would say Pafsanias (this is often my nickname in Greece, the local chemist calls me that when she sees me because she knows I travel a lot) who was the first real geographer and traveller in the second century AD. For his times he travelled a lot, in Egypt, Palestine, Italy and what is today Turkey. He wrote what is perhaps the first travel guide ‘Description of Greece’… I also admire some of the fearless navigators who discovered new horizons, people like Vasco da Gama for example, and Ibn Battuta is also a favourite. But I must also mention, though he is still very much alive, Nick Vujicic (Australian motivational speaker with no arms and legs, red.) – the man is really an inspiration.