By Lorelli Embry
Revised and expanded by Chris Hudson, June 2021
The Travelers’ Century Club® began 67 years ago.
In 1954 overseas leisure travel was still a rarity. It was the early days of international travel and the jet age was still four years into the future. Ships plying the oceans only provided transportation, not cruising as we know it today; the America to Europe voyage took several days. Visiting 100 countries was an accomplishment that most people could only dream of and few had realized. After all, it took considerable time and money!
The idea of forming a social club for those privileged few who had attained this feat was born in 1954 in the Los Angeles offices of Hemphill Travel Service. Bert Hemphill, the owner, known as the “Dean of Travel,” had pioneered deluxe around-the-world escorted tours by air. He had a loyal following of clients who traveled on his exploratory tours.
Hemphill, who perhaps originated the concept (a somewhat controversial point), was instrumental in getting the Travelers’ Century Club® started for those who had visited 100 countries. It was his tour director, Russell Davidson, however, who made it a reality and handled its administration. Hemphill was the Club’s first President, and Davidson was Secretary until his passing in 1987. Davidson had also served as President.
By 1960 there were 43 individuals who submitted qualification lists proving they had traveled to 100 or more countries. These travel pioneers thus became the charter members of TCC. Many were clients of Hemphill Travel; some were the agency’s own tour directors.
Ruth Nelson, who was present at that initial meeting in 1954, recalled that, at that time, she had been around the world, visited many countries in Central and South America and toured the major countries of Europe, but she admitted that, “it would be several years before I qualified as a TCC member upon reaching the magic 100.” By that time Nelson had opened her own travel agency. She later became TCC President and served on the Board of Directors for some 20 years.
At the February 2, 1960, TCC board meeting, the Club Officers selected a slogan among several suggested – “World Travel … the passport to peace through understanding.” A press luncheon to announce the formation of the new organization was held the same day.
The first open meeting of the Travelers’ Century Club® was held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on April 28, 1961, with 27 members in attendance. Most were from the greater Los Angeles area but some came from Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, San Jose, San Francisco, Honolulu and Austin,Texas. Much of the discussion was about the purpose and goal of the Club. It was determined that the initiation fee would be $25, annual dues $10. Today the initiation fee is $100, annual dues $75, international dues $85.
At that 1961 meeting, it was decided that the Club should incorporate and by-laws should be drawn. The decision was also made to publish a newsletter, The Centurian, four times a year. By 1980 the Club had incorporated, received tax exemption status and obtained insurance. It is a nonprofit, non-stock corporation. There were then about 300 members, and from that time on the Club has grown in membership, with more than 1,500 worldwide members today.
The Club gradually separated from Hemphill Travel. In the 1970s several travel agencies and tour operators were handling tours to interesting and unique destinations. It was felt that TCC members should have access to many sources of information and booking possibilities. Some TCC members are in the travel industry.
Following the passing of Russell Davidson, who had been handling the administration of TCC, his widow, Roe, took over for a short while, but much of the work was being handled by Klaus Billep and his staff at Universal Travel Systems in Santa Monica, California. When Roe passed away, the entire administrative responsibilities were transferred to Billep, who was President at the time. More recently, some of the work has been shared among the volunteer Board members, while past President JoAnn Schwartz handles most of the Club’s regular administrative tasks.
There are currently eight volunteer Officers and Board members, who determine the Club’s rules and policies. They meet in person four times a year, with frequent interim electronic meetings. There have been 28 presidents, six of whom have been women. Traditionally, presidents serve for two years.
TCC members have traveled together to hidden corners of the world and to such distinctive places as the Northwest Passage, Central Asia (the “Stan” countries), West Africa, the World Heritage sites of North Africa, islands of the Indian Ocean, the Marquesas and Tuamotus, Cape Horn to Cape Town cruises, the South Atlantic islands, including Bouvet Island, Greenland/Iceland/the North Pole, North Korea, the outer islands of Britain, Barrancas del Cobre, and they have circumnavigated Antarctica and cruised in those waters.
The original list of qualifying “countries” was put together by Russell Davidson. When Sanford Smith, an attorney in Vineburg, California, became a board member in the 70s, he headed a country qualifications committee which refined the criteria. Smith, who had traveled to over 300 countries, and in addition to having a vast knowledge of geography was also a radio ham amateur, looked at the qualifying nations put together by the American Radio Relay League and used that as a guide. The TCC Board then made some modifications to that list and, as a result, added 35 destinations and dropped about 15.
Today, the Club retains the 1970s Rules codification as our guide for maintaining and updating the list of destinations, interpreting it in accordance with contemporary world conditions. At the time of writing, the Club’s Official List of Approved Countries & Territories is 329, grouped in 12 regions. The list is normally reviewed and updated every two years, and we do not generally add destinations until they have become officially independent, or de facto independent for several years. Although the Rules present clear criteria, there are inevitably gray areas that engender debate — sometimes enjoyable, sometimes fraught! — and we try to be as impartial and thoughtful as we can in interpreting them.
By adhering to the largely quantifiable criteria established half a century ago, we aim to present a well-researched list that covers all indisputably sovereign countries plus distinct destinations of serious interest to travelers — but to avoid, wherever possible, more subjective opinions about political issues or cultural separateness. We recognize that there can be longer or shorter lists, all of which are fine for those of us with our own personal goals, but try to maintain the TCC list as something of a gold standard for serious travelers and to remember the spirit of the Club, which is a social club whose members embrace travel both as an activity that encourages discovery, tolerance, and peace through understanding, and as something that is quite simply enjoyable.
Some places on the list may temporarily be inaccessible or closed to visitors, but that is sadly inevitable given the all-too-frequent occurrence of military strife and health crises. The list is posted on the TCC website — www.travelerscenturyclub.org.
Membership is based on an honor system for the first 100 qualifying places, but then members must complete an up-to-date destination list to be approved for the next level and to be recognized in The Centurian. There is also a category list of “retired” countries and territories: these are areas recognized as nations in the past. Those who have been to 75 places can become Provisional Members. Members are serious about visiting the destinations and most stay at least a day or two, or more. They are encouraged to do so, but short visits, even a port of call or a plane fuel stop, qualify as a stay. (Some places may be too dangerous or too remote to allow longer stays.) One must actually set foot in the destination, however.
Members receive a membership card, certificate and a pin when they join. Then they are honored when they reach different levels: 150 (Silver), 200 (Gold), 250 (Platinum) and 300 (Diamond).
Members who have visited all the TCC countries and territories on the TCC list as of the date of their travels include: John Clouse, Parke Thompson, John Todd, Don C. Buckley (all in 1994), Gig Gwin (1995), Ken Ziegler, A. Allman, Charles Veley (all 2003), Jeff Shea (2004), Ron Endeman (the first sitting TCC President to reach this milestone, also in 2004), Robert and Dorothy Pine (2005), Tim Carlson (2006), Ray Woods (2009), Audrey Walsworth, Bart Hackley, Bill Altaffer, Dietrich Deppe, Robert Spehar, Rowland Burley (all 2011), Phyllis and Bob Henson (2014), Bob Bonifas, Don Parrish (both 2017). Many more have been to 300 or more destinations.
It has not been an easy task to accomplish visits to all the destinations. The British Indian Ocean Territory, site of the U.S. Naval Base at Diego Garcia, is considered by many to be the most difficult place to reach because there is no commercial transportation. A dozen TCC chartered a boat out of the Seychelles for a five-day voyage each way. Another TCC group chartered a boat to BIOT from the Maldives. Members often get together and form their own tours or transportation to a hard-to-reach destination to help defray expenses.
TCC members often take cruises as a group or discover other TCC members during a cruise. In March, 2015, some 30 TCC members from the U.S., Costa Rica, France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Singapore sailed together from Ushuaia, Argentina, to the Cape Verde Islands. The 35-day cruise was centered on a visit to the elusive Bouvet Island, but rough seas prevented a landing. Nevertheless, the TCC members had a great time together and did add some destinations to their lists. Other members have traveled together on South Atlantic crossings.
Today the 1,500 TCC members are from all parts of the United States and all over the world. The Club does not solicit membership and resists commercializing. Growth has come from word-of-mouth, and many people read about TCC in national magazines, newspapers or on the Internet. Articles about TCC frequently appear.
In addition, members on some of their unique trips come across other well-traveled people and tell them about TCC. Many are surprised to find they have traveled to so many countries when they check the list. Members frequently run into other TCC members during their travels, especially to remote areas. This provides an immediate bond.
The first TCC meeting outside the Los Angeles home base was in the early 1980s in San Diego. Luncheons later were held in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Today, the Charter Chapter holds four luncheon meetings each year, alternating between Orange County and the Los Angeles area. The San Francisco chapter meets separately, also four times a year, and a separate San Diego chapter was launched in 2012.
The Los Angeles/Orange County attendance ranges from 65 to 100. Programs include a presentation by a member about his or her recent travels to an off-the-beaten-path destination or about an unusual experience. There are also outside guest speakers.
Since members live all over the world, chapters have sprung up in other areas. The first chapter established outside Los Angeles was in the New York area, in the early 70s. New York has about 100 members who meet three or four times a year.
The next chapter was in the Denver area, established in 1989. It usually meets every other month. The first meeting in the Chicago area was in 1997, and Miami was added the following year. Though there were several San Francisco Bay Area luncheons and dinners in the 80s and 90s, with many members from Southern California in attendance, the first formal Northern California chapter meeting was in August, 2001.
Other chapters have been added in Arkansas, Southwest Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Missouri ( Kansas City), Missouri (St. Louis), New England, the Pacific Northwest, Pennsylvania, the Southwestern states, Texas/Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C. The first overseas chapter was in the United Kingdom (London) in 2006. A new chapter in Eastern Canada (Toronto) was launched in 2010, one in Germany in 2011, and more recently chapters have been established in the Mediterranean, China, France, Korea, and Oceania/Australia.
Each chapter determines its format and where to meet, which can be in a member’s home, at a private club, a restaurant, or even at an outdoor venue. During the coronavirus pandemic, many meetings have been held via digital communication. Each chapter coordinator reports about the activities of his or her area for The Centurian newsletter and also provides photos. Some chapters meet every other month; others meet two or three times a year. Some have formal programs with speakers and videos; others gather to socialize and exchange travel experiences. Many TCC members visit other chapter meetings. Updates on chapter meetings and photos are also on the TCC website.
To celebrate its 50th Anniversary, the Travelers’ Century Club® held two special weekend functions in 2004 — in New York in April and in Las Vegas in October. The club has had five international meetings. The first was in Monte Carlo in October, 1999; the second was October 26-28, 2007, in London, in cooperation with the UK chapter, which also hosted the third international meeting in Dublin, April 17-19, 2009; a fourth international meeting was held in Berlin, September 21-24, 2012, in cooperation with the new German chapter; and a fifth eas held in Barcelona, October 5-7, 2028. . A sixth international meeting is set for Malta from May 5-8, 2022.
To celebrate its 60th Anniversary, some 65 TCC members, including the Board of Directors and Area Coordinators, went on a weekend cruise, October 24-27, 2014, from Los Angeles to Ensenada, Mexico. There was a Welcome Reception after Friday departure and meetings on both Saturday and Sunday, with plenty of time to enjoy ship activities and communicate with the other TCC members in small groups and individually. With Mexico becoming his 100th country to visit, TCC welcomed its first member from mainland China during the cruise. (There are also members from Taiwan and Hong Kong.)
These TCC globetrotters enjoy sharing their travel experiences in an environment of like-minded people, with travel as the common denominator. Since many members have traveled together, the meetings are like reunions and all seem to enjoy the camaraderie and friendship. Many deep relationships have thus been formed.
This exclusive travel group comes from all walks of life. Members are not asked about their background when they join. Some have traveled overseas for business purposes, some have been in the military –and all have a curiosity about learning about new places. Many members are in their autumn years and are retired or semi-retired, because it does take time to visit these destinations, yet there is an increasing number of younger members.
Some members like to “collect” destinations, as other people collect stamps, paintings, dolls, spoons or coins. Some first became interested in travel at an early age because of stamp collecting or by traveling with a parent or by reading books. It takes persistence and ingenuity (and money) to reach some of the out-of-the-way places, and TCC helps provide a focus and inspiration to travel to new territories.
Besides the educational programs at the chapter gatherings, TCC also educates its members with Info Files. These are one or two pages, noncommercial, and written by members following trips to unique destinations. They contain observations and information not found in the usual guide books. They are for TCC members exclusively, and may be obtained via the TCC website, or by print if a member prefers. (Dues are $10 additional.) Back copies are available for $1.00 each. There are about 500 Info Files currently available.
Exchanging information about hard-to-reach destinations is one of the primary benefits of membership since many travel agents do not want to or cannot handle arrangements for those difficult-to-reach places. Members who have previously traveled to such places can provide helpful advice on how to get there, what to expect, and other tips. They can supply information on difficulties and hazards as well as on things not to miss.
As a result, a password-protected social networking website, called the TCC Forum, was established in 2011 as a member benefit. Access to this private members-only online community is by invitation only. Members may use the site to post personal travelogues and photos, seek specific travel advice or discuss a wide range of travel-related topics with other participating members. This is the site where members can access the new Info Files listed in each issue of The Centurian, as well as links to past issues of the newsletter. TCC can also be found on the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter platforms.
Most members would agree that a key benefit of membership is the worldwide recognition or the “bragging rights,” since few people have visited 100 destinations. Many say that being a TCC member has changed and enriched their lives. They look at the world in a different way. They have been in parts of the world where they have experienced history in the making. They are more familiar with foreign policies and places where world events are happening and they have become more tolerant.
Some do not have the desire to go to all the places on the list, preferring, instead, to return to those destinations they have most enjoyed and to get to know more about the countries, the people, culture and history. Most do a great deal of research before visiting a destination. They are savvy about keeping safe and dealing with adversity and diversity.
Travel has changed a lot since the Club was founded in 1954. In some ways, it is much easier and less expensive, although in recent years security restrictions and the pandemic have rolled back some of those changes. Many members nostalgically remember when countries were more distinctive in their cultures and travel offered more discoveries, but even though globalization has created more similarities today, there are still those far-flung outposts waiting to be discovered by the true adventurer who always finds it exciting to go to a destination not previously visited.