American woman visits all 196 countries in record time: Report

De Pecol at Paro Taktsang in Bhutan in a photo posted to her Instagram page.
De Pecol at Paro Taktsang in Bhutan in a photo posted to her Instagram page.PHOTO: INSTAGRAM

WASHINGTON - American Cassie De Pecol has become the first documented woman to visit all 196 countries in the world and she did so at record speed.

De Pecol, 27,  managed to get around all 196 sovereign nations in 18 months and 26 days - less than half the time it took the previous Guinness World Record holder, says a CNN report.

But the welcome wasn't always warm. In North Korea, says the broadcaster, De Pecol shook hands with a soldier who said:  "We're going to destroy you, America."

She reportedly told him about her peaceful mission: She was there to show that, even if their governments could not be friends, the two of them did not have to be enemies.

"I just like to show that we can be friends and we can kind of coexist," said  Connecticut resident De Pecol, who embarked on her journey in July 2015.

She needed a larger purpose for the trip, said CNN, so she became an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, a nonprofit founded in 1986 to promote cultural understanding after terrorist incidents sparked tensions between Eastern and Western countries.

Over the course of her journey, she met with mayors and ministers of tourism, presenting them with the institute's "Declaration of Peace."

De Pecol, who majored in environmental studies in college, also promoted sustainable tourism, speaking to more than 16,000 students about the ways to offset your carbon footprint when you travel.

"If you say, fly from Bangalore, India, to Colombo, Sri Lanka, you end up killing one tree during that flight, the goal is to plant two trees, for regenerative tourism, not just sustainable tourism," De Pecol said.

Having flown over 255 times on her expedition, De Pecol says she has been called hypocritical for boasting a sustainable mission. She aims to completely offset the heavy carbon footprint of her trip, however, by planting trees in over 50 countries, said CNN.

"It's tough to figure out to get permission to plant a tree in a lot of countries, but I've been trying to do that as much as possible. I've planted close to 50 trees now but there's about 500 more, so that's just a goal."

ANSWERING CRITICS

De Pecol said she has faced criticism for the short time she spent in each place - too brief, critics say, to have meaningful experiences.

"It all comes down to two words: time management," De Pecol says in her defence. "One could spend Saturday and Sunday chilling at home watching Netflix - totally OK, I am guilty of that at times - or travelling to five places within one country, five countries within those two days."

Others accuse her of only being in it to chase the record - and money, said CNN.

In total, De Pecol budgeted US$198,000 (S$280,000) to get herself around the world, the broadcaster said.

She was 23 years old when she began planning her journey, and in the beginning she had no funding. During the year and a half that she spent planning her trip, she says she saved US$10,000 by babysitting, then went about acquiring sponsors.

"I had to really utilise Google and be like 'how am I going to find the funding to do this?' 'How did other people find the funding to do this?' So I looked at people like Ranulph Fiennes who is considered the worlds greatest living explorer," De Pecol said.

She attracted a wide range of sponsors, from big companies like AIG to a hand-painted tote bag artisan, and she exchanged board at eco-hotels for promotional coverage of their sustainability efforts.

Though Americans can travel freely in many parts of the world, obtaining visas for the countries that require them proved to be one of the biggest challenges, she said - and geopolitical tensions came into play.
Travellers are not allowed to enter North Korea alone, and Americans who wish to visit are charged a hefty price.

"The visa was like US$1,000 for three days, whereas I went in with a group of Chinese tourists and their visa was like US$300 for three days," De Pecol said.

In other places where she struggled to get approved for a visa, like Turkmenistan and Syria, she turned to social media for help, said CNN.

"There have been cases when I post on my Facebook 'Hi I need help getting into Libya' or 'I need help getting into Syria,' and at that point it's kind of trusting in the unknown, trusting in people," De Pecol said.

RECORD TIME

Guinness World Records officials split the "fastest person to travel to all sovereign countries" into gender categories after another woman attempting the record said she could not get into Saudi Arabia without a male escort.

"When determining if a record will be separated by gender, we look at each record on a case by case basis to see whether or not the record poses a different challenge for each gender. This does not mean that one category is more challenging than the other, only that the challenge is different," Kaitlin Holl, records manager for Guinness World Records, told CNN.

Once evidence of her journey is validated by officials in the coming weeks, De Pecol will claim two titles, CNN said - both as the fastest female to travel to all sovereign countries and as the fastest person of any gender to make the trip.

Michigan native Yili Liu has held the male record since 2010, completing the trip in three years and three months.

For De Pecol it was another mountain to climb for women's equality, CNN said.

"I thought this is not right, this shouldn't be this way, and that's when I realised it was just one step backwards for equality between men and women, so I really made a push to bring that record back to where it was for the fastest person," De Pecol said.

To stay fit and healthy during her trip - and to offset the times while traveling when she only had chips to eat - De Pecol made sure to drink enough water, take vitamins and exercise.

She also went running wherever she was in the world, and practiced Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art she learned to be able to defend herself as a woman travelling alone. Krav Maga Worldwide was among her sponsors.

Her post-expedition body in top shape, she's scheduled to compete in an Ironman Challenge in San Diego in March (2017).

De Pecol said she may never put roots down somewhere permanently, and isn't so sure about adopting the nine-to-five grind.

"I thought, you know what, it actually scares me a little bit. I would quit like after a week," she said.

There's just one place De Pecol hasn't been: Antarctica. While not technically a sovereign nation, she will journey there with Quark Expeditions in late February.

"I was like, hey, if I go to six continents, 196 countries, I may as well hit up the last continent," De Pecol said.

She has plans to write a book about her journey and finish an educational documentary when she returns from Antarctica, said CNN.

"I put myself in this position where now I have to figure out how I'm going to support myself through entrepreneurial projects and that sort of thing for the rest of my life," she said.