Until the 20th century arrived, the answer to the question was easy. There is a long heritage of great travelers, real and imagined, from Odysseus, Sinbad, Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Zheng Ho to Ibn Battuta. The Vikings were pretty good travelers say the sagas.
The word "circumnavigator" didn't even enter the lexicon until 1625, and prior to that the concept itself was unthinkable. But then the illusive became the benchmark of great travelers for centuries. Magellan's mates Enrique of Malacca and Juan Elcano were arguably the first to do it, followed heroically by: Drake, Loyola, Cavendish, van Noort, Dampier (who did it three times and was fictionalized in Daniel Defoe's "Robinson Crusoe" and Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels"), then Shelvocke, Anson, Cook, Jeanne Bare (the first woman to do it), Darwin, Slocum and Abiel Abbot Low- -- who did it in just 89 days.
When you think about it, it was only 141 years ago that Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days was published, raising the bar when Phileas Fogg and his sidekick Passepartout, employed rail, steamship, horseback, balloon and foot, among other modes. By then, traveling the world became all about speed. Who could do it fastest? Then it was Nellie Bly who did it in 75 days, and George Francis Train who did it in 60. By the time aeroplane arrived on the scene, the record for circumnavigating the globe stood at 39 days.
But of course planes changed everything. In 1933, Wiley Post flew around the world in under eight days. By 1941 Pan American Airways (aka Pan Am) had scheduled "round-the-world" commercial service. Anyone could go around the world now and fast. Hey, Yuri Garagin did it in about 90 minutes! People have now walked, biked, hitchhiked, ballooned, any other mode of transportation you could think, to become famous, and infamous, great travelers.
The winners of the cast, scripted, stunt and drama-induced reality TV show The Amazing Race? Not likely. Is it Gunther Holtorf, a 75-year old German who has driven more than 800,000 kilometers around the world to over 170 "nations" the last few decades? Is it Graham Hughes, a 34-year-old British man who traveled 160,000 miles over 1,426 days and visited more than 200 "countries" -- without using a plane? What about Dave Kunst who walked around the world? Or the uber-nouveau riche Internet tycoon Charles Veley, who has claimed to have visited over 829 "countries"? Maybe it's Michael Palin, who has done a fair amount of fun traveling around the world north, south, east and west, in conjunction with his BBC shows? It seems that anyone with enough resources can do something that attracts the media spotlight.
Obviously, they are all great travelers just because they have survived, endured and had good press agents. They all must have serious travel skills to do what they have done, along with an elevated Travel IQ. But who are The World's Greatest Travelers?
I submit to you that today, in the era of the Super Bowl, World Cup and the Olympics, that The World's Greatest Travelers are the winners of the very real around the world travel adventure competition known as The Global Scavenger Hunt. The annual event which is designed to answer the question by testing the travel mettle, acumen and savvy of willing international travelers in an open-to-all who enter travel competition -- travelers from over 50 nations have applied! The competition pits traveler against traveler, as they not only circumnavigate the globe, but also visit 10-secret countries (no prior preparation or intelligence is possible) while performing a series of real-life site-doing scavenges that tests their Travel IQ, situational awareness, and ultimately, their true travel bona fides. Good travelers prevail mano-a-mano, as the cream rises to the top. These competitors -- who all pay the same entry fee to participate -- must quickly adapt to new environments (urban, rural, developed, undeveloped, Western, Eastern, Muslim, Hindu, island, city-state, etc.), overcome language barriers and cultural differences, the jetlag of circling the globe, the inevitable logistic snafus when limited to public transportation, surviving the 23-day marathon-like event, team dynamics (having a great travel mate is critical), and the ever-present heat of competition. Only after surviving all that, and flourishing, are The World's Greatest Travelers crowned.
And so to answer the question I posed; today, just days before the start of the 2013 edition of The Global Scavenger Hunt, the reigning title holders of The World's Greatest Travelers™ crown are: Saskia Van Waayenburg, a Dutch women, and her Kiwi travel partner Andrew Parsonage, of New Zealand. They will be defending their 2012 title over the next three weeks against 26 other willing travel competitors, as they all travel between Los Angeles and Toronto -- the long way.
You can follow the event here on Huffington Post with regular dispatches from the road, as well as on the event's official blog site PostCards, along with Facebook and Twitter too. Enjoy the ride and stay tuned to find out who will be crowned The World's Greatest Travelers™ for 2013. Do you think you have what it takes?