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At 79, she reached her goal to visit every country in the world

Luisa Yu shows off mask woodcraft during her time in Abanga-Bigne, Gabon.
Luisa Yu
Luisa Yu shows off mask woodcraft during her time in Abanga-Bigne, Gabon.

When it comes to her passion for travel, Luisa Yu doesn't take no for an answer. If she did, she might not have tried dog meat in North Korea, or glimpsed the pristine beaches of Somalia or skydived in Dubai at age 77.

"Everyone said, 'Don't go to Somalia, that's dangerous,' " Yu told NPR. "If I want to go somewhere, nobody can stop me. I like challenge — it's more exciting. I want to do everything."

Thanks to her stubborn determination, the 79-year-old has now achieved her longtime, ultimate travel goal she's chased for more than 50 years. The Miami resident has traveled to all 193 countries recognized by the United Nations, according to NomadMania, which keeps track of the world's most-traveled people.

The last stop on her world tour was to Serbia in November. Fellow traveler friends arranged to meet her at the airport there to mark her achievement, where, she says, a "big surprise celebration for me was waiting."

Yu caught the travel bug early. Growing up in the province of Leyte in the Philippines, she was inspired by the movies she watched as a kid, mostly American Westerns. She set her sights on visiting the natural landscapes she saw on screen, like the craggy backdrops of John Wayne films.

"I saw all this beautiful mountain scenery, lakes and riding horses," she said. "That's how I started dreaming and saying that one day I'm gonna see the world."

Her first step in realizing that dream came in her early 20s, when she arrived in the U.S. as an exchange student to study medical technologies. When visa restrictions prevented her from traveling outside the U.S., she explored the country by Greyhound bus. She saved up her vacation time earned while working at a Miami hospital to take stateside trips. She's yet to visit only two U.S. states — Kentucky and Oklahoma.

The 'round-the-world feat wasn't easy, Yu says. She waited 15 years to get her green card to be able to travel internationally. There were stretches where she worked as many as three jobs at a time to save up enough money for trips, she says. At one point, she earned her real estate license. But travel remained her passion.

Yu goes apple picking on a visit to Tokat, Turkey, in 2021.
/ Luisa Yu
/
Luisa Yu
Yu goes apple picking on a visit to Tokat, Turkey, in 2021.

Eventually, she became a part-time travel agent, which afforded her greater freedom and opportunities to check places off her bucket list, including access to countries that are notoriously difficult for tourists to visit. In 2008, for example, she was invited to Iran, where she got to see the tomb of Cyrus the Great.

Last year, a record 50 new entries were added to the NomadMania list of people who have visited all U.N.-recognized countries, reported CNN. Perhaps more people than ever are trying to see it all because it's easier to do so now.

"Before, you might have needed 'connections' in particular countries, [or] have difficulty in getting visas or invitations," Michael O'Regan, a tourism and events lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, told the outlet. "You needed a 'strong' passport, and access to resources, such as tour guides and insider knowledge about transport and hotels."

Today, low-cost air carriers, visas on arrival and the increasing flexibility employees have to work remotely makes it easier.

During the pandemic in 2020, Yu traveled to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
/ Luisa Yu
/
Luisa Yu
During the pandemic in 2020, Yu traveled to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

The seasoned traveler's advice?

"Don't wait for anybody," she said. "If I keep on waiting, it will never happen, because the opportunity sometimes comes only once. I can always make money, you know? But time is important."

These days, she says she's taking her time. But "slowing down" for Yu still looks pretty active.

"I'm not rushing to do anything, you know, I've become very selective [with] what I wanna do," she said. "It's just flying to one country, just going to Europe or some country, no challenge — you go there, you just do whatever you want and that's easy for me."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emma Bowman