The Biggest Industries In Uruguay

Grain silos in Uruguay. Editorial credit: Michel Piccaya /
Grain silos in Uruguay. Editorial credit: Michel Piccaya /

Uruguay’s economy has experienced perpetual growth since the late 20th century, briefly interrupted in the early 2000s as a result of the “2002 Uruguay Banking Crisis”, from which the country has recovered. Uruguay’s Gross Domestic Product is valued at $72.577 billion, and when accounted against the nation’s population of 3.416 million people, translates to a GDP per capita of $21,247. Uruguay’s public debt is an area of concern, as it is currently more than half the country’s annual GDP. Services, agriculture, and manufacturing, are the biggest industries in the country, representing 71.9%, 20.6%, and 7.5% of the GDP respectively. The official currency used in the country is known as the Uruguayan Peso. The Central Bank of Uruguay is the institution mandated in regulating the inflation of the currency, as well as supervising the activities of other financial institutions. The population living below the poverty line is 9.7% of Uruguay’s population, which is quite low in Latin American standards. While the unemployment rate in the country stands at 6.77%, which is low and has been on a worryingly increasing trend in recent years.

Exports/ Imports

The country has a near-perfect balance of payments; where the export-import ratio stands at 1:1.1 respectively. Uruguay’s annual exports are valued at an estimated $9.8 billion, where the primary export markets are Brazil, China, and Argentina which account for 18.5%, 17.9% and 6.8% of the country’s exports respectively. Agricultural products represent the leading export commodities from Uruguay, with wool, timber, grains, and beef being the country’s most important agricultural exports. The country’s total annual imports are valued at $10.97 billion. Uruguay’s import goods are primarily sourced from China, Argentina, and Brazil, accounting for 16%, 15.8% and 14.6% of the country’s annual imports. Vehicles, petroleum, electronics, and vehicle parts are Uruguay’s main import commodities.

Tourism and Hospitality Industry

The country is growing to become a leading tourist destination in South America, and the recent tourist numbers are a testimony to that growth. Annual international tourist numbers in the country are more than 1.7 million, who bring in $0.8 billion in revenues. The industry accounts for about 9.4% of Uruguay’s Gross Domestic Product and is a significant employer in the country. Most international tourists originate from neighboring countries in South America. Domestic tourists also play a significant role in the industry. Uruguay is blessed with natural beauty found nowhere else, ranging from dense forests to pristine beaches along the Atlantic Coast. Among the best-known tourist spots in Uruguay is the “Punta del Este,” a peninsula situated in the southeastern edge of the country which is popular for its resorts. While small, Punta del Este attracts thousands of tourists each year, who are drawn by the picturesque beaches found along the peninsula. The peninsula has a thriving hospitality industry and is home to more than 200 hotels and restaurants which are connected to the outside world by its international airport. The Lobos Island is found near the peninsula, famous for its large population of South American fur seals.

Agriculture Industry

Agriculture is another major industry in the country and accounts for about 10% of Uruguay’s Gross Domestic Product. Historically, the industry was the primary driver of Uruguay’s economy and was at its peak in the early 20th century in what was known as the “Golden Era.” By this period, the country was a major exporter of beef and wool. The drop in global prices of agricultural products witnessed in the mid-20th century had a detrimental effect on Uruguay’s agriculture industry, and marked the end of the industry’s “Golden Era.”Nonetheless, the historic farms that had flourished during the “Golden Era” have become important sites in agri-tourism (also known as “Estancia Tourism”), attracting crowds of people who are fascinated by the well preserved 20th-century agricultural infrastructure. Uruguay is a major agricultural exporter and is part of the Cairns Group, the world’s leading association of agriculture exporting countries. The lack of technological advancements in the industry has made its agricultural output per hectare relatively lower than in other agriculture exporting countries. However, limited technological inputs in Uruguay’s agriculture has increased the appeal of Uruguay’s agricultural exports, which are marketed as being ecological or green, using only natural inputs in their production. Brazil, South Africa, Iran, and Peru are the chief export markets for Uruguay’s rice, while the US, India, and the UK are the primary consumers of wool from Uruguay.

Service Industry

The banking sector is a significant driver of Uruguay’s economy. The “Banco Republica” is the country’s largest financial institution and is among the oldest in the country. The country is also home to more than 20 private banks. The sector experienced a downturn in the 1990s that culminated in what was referred to as the “2002 Uruguay Banking Crisis”. The financial crisis that crippled the operations of many of Uruguay’s banks was attributed to events that happened in the late 20th century. By the 1990s, Uruguay’s flexible financial laws and the stability of the country’s financial sector earned the country a reputation of being South America’s top offshore banking destination. Argentina was particularly fond of Uruguay’s financial sector and had deposited millions of dollars in Uruguay’s financial institutions. But in 2001, Argentina experienced a financial crisis of its own, resulting in Argentinians withdrawing millions of dollars in bulk from Uruguayan banks. The financial institutions which were caught unawares left millions of their domestic clients without access to their deposits, plunging the country into an unprecedented financial crisis. Fortunately, the country has since recovered from the effects of the financial crisis.

Other Industries

Other industries that have played a significant role in Uruguay’s economy are the manufacturing and ICT industries. Plastics are the country’s chief manufactured export commodities. The rise in plastic exports resulted in investments made in the late 20th century, which also saw an increase in petroleum imports in the country. However, these oil imports are set to decrease once the ambitious oil exploration projects being done in the country prove successful. Uruguay is believed to have significant petroleum reserves, particularly in numerous offshore sites off the country’s coast. Uruguay’s young and well-educated population is behind the growth of the country’s ICT industry and the development of products such as GeneXus.


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