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Overview of Uruguay: History, Economy, Tourism

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The country of Uruguay is situated between Brazil and Argentina in South America, appearing to be a small-wedge shaped country. Despite its small depiction on a world map and it being the second smallest South American country, it is still five times the size of the Netherlands. Much of Uruguay is made up of rolling land, with valleys, plains, low plateaus, hills, and very few forested areas. There are some ridges extended from the Brazilian Highlands, such as the Cuchilla de Haedo and Cuchilla Grande. The highest point is Mount Catedral at 514 meters in the southeast of the country. Along the 660 kilometer coast of fertile lowlands, there are tidal lakes and sand dunes.

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In midwinter, which would be around July, the average temperature falls between 50 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit. In midsummer, or January, it ranges from 72 to 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Most of Uruguay’s rain comes during March and April, their autumn, and remains through the winter. However, there is not necessarily one “rainy” or one “dry” season.

Before European colonization in Uruguay, there was a small population of about five thousand to ten thousand from the semi-nomadic groups Charrúa, Chaná, Guaraní, and a few smaller ones. Juan Díaz de Solís of Spain attempted to explore the region in 1516, but he was killed and eaten by the Charrúa or Guaraní. Ferdinand Magellan and Sebastian Cabot also explored the area in 1520, but decided against it for settlement due to few minerals and few Indians to enslave. Despite this, European diseases still spread into the area, killing thousands of the natives. Eventually in 1680, the Portuguese established Colônia do Sacramento. The Spanish established their own fortified city in 1726, and in 1777, the whole area ceded to Spain, becoming a part of the Vice-royalty of La Plata. Montevideo was the major Spanish port, with a population of ten thousand by 1800 (.

In 1808, the path to independence began with Uruguay rebelling against the Vice-royalty after the Spanish monarchy was overthrown by Napoleon (BBC News, 2018). Uruguay gained its independence in 1830, but this was followed by times of uncertainty, poverty, and political conflict. The country later benefited from the Colorados coming into political power and the European market demand for Uruguayan products that came with World War Two. However, 1984 was a time of more political conflict for Uruguay. There were violent protests due to the deteriorating economic conditions and repressive military rule. This unrest finally led to a return to constitutional government frameworks and political prisoner releases. After another economic crisis in the early 2000s, the “left” gained power, leading to many liberal-style moves. Uruguay was among the first in South America for many of these changes. In 2013, they were second to Argentina to legalize gay marriage, and in 2018, they became the first country in the world to legally produce and sell marijuana for recreational use.

Today, Uruguay is home to approximately 3.360 million people, with a population growth rate of 0.27%. Montevideo, the capital, has 1.737 million people. Out of the total population, 87.7% are white and only 2.4% are indigenous to Uruguay. Uruguay’s economy is characterized as free market, and there is an emphasis on the export-oriented agricultural sector and well-educated laborers. The economy is doing much better than it was two decades ago, with a GDP real growth rate at 3.1%. Additionally, the unemployment rate was at 7.3% in 2017, down from 2016’s 7.9%. Out of the country’s total GDP, the service sector makes up 68.8%.

As the service sector and tourism industry can go hand-in-hand, this shows the country’s affinity towards tourism. According to the UNWTO Tourism Highlights for 2017, 2016 saw a little over three million (3,037,000) inbound tourist arrivals in Uruguay. There was a positive 9.5% growth rate between 2015 and 2016, and Uruguay held a 1.5% market share in 2016. In regard to tourism’s impact on Uruguay’s economy, the World Travel & Tourism Council found that the total contribution by tourism on the GDP was 9.6% in 2016, and this is projected to rise to 10.7% by 2027. Of that 9.6%, the direct contribution was still 3.2% of Uruguay’s total GDP. Additionally, the tourism receipts of 2016 were at 1.835 billion US dollars, with Uruguay having a 0.6% market share.

Environmental and eco-tourism are popular tourism markets in Uruguay, with it being listed in the Ethical Traveler’s top ten best ethical destinations in both 2017 and 2016. Ethical Traveler selects countries based on governments improving upon policies, great data from groups like Freedom House, the World Bank, and UNICEF, well-preserved natural beauty, and if tourists have an opportunity to interact meaningfully with the people and culture. Uruguay received this rating for these reasons, as well as others. The country ranks 3 out of 146 countries in terms of environmental sustainability. It is a leader in sustainable energy with less of a carbon footprint and 94.5% of the country’s electricity is renewable. Additionally, Uruguay is focused on economic growth, high employment, gender equality, and LGBTQ protections, which all lead to the highest score on civil and political rights by Freedom House. Uruguay is also popular for cultural tourism with many historic landmarks and cities like Colonia del Sacramento. With many beach resorts and cared for beach fronts like in Punta del Este and Montevideo, beach-related tourism is another market for the country. There is adventure tourism with surfing and sailing, nature tourism with hiking trails and campgrounds, vineyards for tourists wanting to enjoy wine, spa tourism, cruise tourism, and religious-based tourism markets.

As for attractions in Uruguay, there are a number of both cultural and natural sites for tourists. Montevideo, the country’s capital, holds a number of them. There, one can find the Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales, with the country’s largest painting collection with works by famous Uruguayans (Lonely Planet, n.d.a). Paladin Salvo used to be South America’s tallest building when opened to the public in 1927. What used to be the Montevideo port market building, is now a lively hangout spot for artists and musicians, with a number of restaurants and shops within the steel building known as Mercado del Puerto. Estadio Centenario is Uruguay’s largest football (or soccer) stadium, built for the first World Cup in 1930. Teatro Solis in the Old City quarter of Montevideo is another popular attraction with its 20th century ornamental decor and plays, operas, and other shows. The Rambla is a coastline promenade and a popular place for tourists to take a stroll down, relax, and shop a bit.

The Colonia del Sacramento Historic Quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to UNESCO, the well-preserved old city is characterized by narrow cobblestone streets, large squares, single-story houses, and is located on the river. The colonial architecture displays both the Spanish and Portuguese marks on the city. The Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape is another Uruguayan UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was built in 1859 to process, package, and distribute meat that came from nearby prairies. This attraction shows the technological developments that led to this level of production, making it an excellent and preserved example of industrial developments of the 20th century. The Frays Bentos Industrial Landscape is also a display of the values of European society coming into South America.

Among other attractions are some more unique sites, such as La Mano en la Arena in Punta del Este. This famous and large sculpted hand coming out of the sand on Playa Brava is a popular photo opportunity spot. Estancia La Aurora is a countryside farm with the religious figure of Padre Pío, but it also brings in visitors due to its reputation of attracting UFOs. With its many vineyards, the small colonial town Carmelo is known as the “Uruguayan Tuscany” and attracts many tourists for the wine.

Aside from the abundance of cultural sites, Uruguay also has a number of popular natural attractions. While the beaches are highly popular, another place for people to enjoy Uruguay’s water is in Salto with the hot springs. The springs, reaching up to 46 degrees Celsius (or 114.8 Fahrenheit), pour in from the Guaraní Aquifer. Due to the belief that these kinds of springs can be healing to a number of ailments, the area attracts those looking to simply relax or feel it’s supposed health benefits. Since it is in interior Uruguay, it is less popular for more coastal tourists, such as those coming from cruise ships, and more-so for Argentinians. Still, with a number of lodging establishments, including five star hotels, and an abundance of thermal pools, they area has continued to become more popular. There is also Salto del Penitente with some rocky mountainous areas with excellent views, small waterfalls, rock climbing, and horseback riding. Pan de Azúcar in Maldonado is a Uruguayan wildlife-rich hill with a large cross on its top and is the home of a natural reserve that has helped save previously endangered species. Punta del Diablo is a small fishing town with the old Santa Teresa fortress, undisturbed beaches, and natural reserves like Cerro Verde, which cares for stranded sea turtles.

Wildlife makes for other popular attractions in Uruguay, especially between the months of June and November. During this time, whales breed off the coast of the country, so people often try to spot the whales in the water from places like Punta Colorada. Additionally, Isla de Lobos has the largest colony of sea lions and fur seals in South America. Here, there is also the tallest lighthouse in South America and one of the tallest in the world (Lonely Planet, n.d.b). In the country’s summer months, tourists and residents will witness one of the most famous celebrations in Uruguay. It is considered more unique than others in the world because it is still an event focused on the locals, rather than only a spectacle for visitors. Still, with this uniqueness, it attracts many from all over with its parades, shows, costumes, music, and more. It typically begins with an inaugural parade in January, and then carries on for forty more nights with “tablados” (or nightly shows). If it rains, the carnival will just last longer, with the forty nights being extended.

In addition to being a country of the carnival, Uruguay is also a country of many other things, which is how their ministry of tourism brands it. The line “Uruguay is…” is used to lead into the various aspects of the country: theater, tango, music, murga, soccer, cinema, mate (tea), and gastronomy. They have branded this country as unique and diverse in order to continue to attract more tourists.

The liberal tendencies of Uruguay also attract many who are a part of or an ally of the LGBTQ group. Lonely Planet calls Montevideo one of South America’s most LGBTQ-friendly cities. The incredibly progressive country has widely respected gay rights and has the Marcha por la Diversidad (March for Diversity) on the last Friday of September since 2005. In September of 2015, people gathered to paint the monument that spells out Montevideo in rainbow colors to symbolize their respect and appreciation for diversity in the country.

Despite Uruguay being listed only as a “level one” travel advisory by the U.S. Department of State, there is still a decent amount of crime, especially in Montevideo. The relationship the country has with street crime, armed robberies, auto thefts, and petty theft could have a negative impact on tourism levels. What some might view as an opportunity with the legalization of marijuana for some more tourism, is actually a misconception. The legalization could easily attract a certain group of tourists, but it is still illegal for tourists to purchase it. Use can lead to being arrested and prosecuted in Uruguay, and this misconception, in addition to the illegal sales continuing, could be a challenge to tourism development. Those who have a negative association with marijuana might avoid the country, with knowledge of the new laws. As some might dislike the drug use, there is also the high chance that people also dislike other liberal policies in Uruguay. Having abortion legalized, for example, could be a strong hindrance to more conservative and/or religious people from wanting to support the country with tourism.

With that said, the country has few severe challenges with its growing economy, stable government, eco-friendly policies, and various tourist attractions.

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