The South American country that dodged Covid is preparing to welcome tourists again

Chris Moss
·7-min read
Uruguay’s Atlantic coast has evolved from Argentine summer bolthole to global glam hotspot in recent years - getty
Uruguay’s Atlantic coast has evolved from Argentine summer bolthole to global glam hotspot in recent years - getty

White-sand beaches and surf breaks, chic eateries and hearty steakhouses, chilled craft beer and smoky tannat wine, ruddy gauchos and tanned beauties... it’s no accident that Uruguay’s Atlantic coast has evolved from Argentine summer bolthole to global glam hotspot in recent years. Martin Amis says the happiest years of his life were spent as an expat in this small, peaceful Latin American buffer state. Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Zuckerberg have both taken holidays at luxurious Estancia Vik. From Buenos Aires, soap stars, fashion models, celeb chefs, rock stars and footballers hop over the River Plate every December to see and be seen – but don’t let that put you off.

Uruguay’s approach in dealing with Covid-19 has arguably been even more impressive than New Zealand’s. Sandwiched between Bolsonaro’s chaotic Brazil and Fernández’s hapless Argentina – now ranked fifth in the world for coronavirus cases (it has just broken the one-million barrier) – Uruguay’s newly installed government responded rapidly and resolutely in March, closing bars, shopping centres, churches, schools and borders, and testing and tracing vigorously and at scale, including applying pool-testing systems pioneered during the Second World War to control syphilis outbreaks.

As a result, the country has clocked up a grand total of 2,531 cases and 51 deaths. The Uruguayan population is approaching 3.5 million, not so different from Wales (which has 34 times more deaths related to Covid-19). Uruguay is roughly the size of England, however, meaning there’s plenty of space to keep to social distancing rules.

Only Uruguayan nationals and legal residents are allowed to enter at present, but pressure is mounting on the government to reopen the main resorts – the coast, estancias, Carmelo wine region, Unesco-listed Colonia and Montevideo – to tourists. The temperature is already in the twenties and tourism, which is highly seasonal, typically enjoys its boom period between November and March. Domestic tourism is picking up, but it won’t make up the shortfall if overseas visitors remain barred.

On Friday October 16, Juan Martínez, the president of the Uruguayan Chamber of Tourism, warned the government that the country “would lose $1 billion [£800m] of the $1.8billion dollars that [tourism-related] business generates each year and unemployment in the sector would be in excess of 55 per cent.”

Tourism accounts for 8 per cent of Uruguay’s GDP and around 11 per cent of jobs. 

There’s plenty of space to keep to social distancing rules - getty
There’s plenty of space to keep to social distancing rules - getty

The dilemma for Uruguayan tourism is that its two most important cash cows – its giant neighbours – are dealing with critical Covid-19 case levels.

“If you analyse the situation, with the rates of infections that there are in Argentina and Uruguay, it’s very complicated,” commented Germán Cardoso, the Uruguayan tourism minister. He said an option being considered was a health passport for all foreign visitors. 

Uruguayan authorities have insisted that any opening will be gradual and there will be limits on the number of Argentines and Brazilians during the 2020-21 season. President Lacalle Pou is advising caution on the evidence of Europe’s recent holiday season, when countries saw increases in cases. Typically, the Uruguayan summer sees an invasion of middle-class porteños – Buenos Aires residents – many of whom have second homes in high-end resorts such as Punta del Este and José Ignacio.

So, what about European travellers – especially Britons who want to swap a winter of rain, cold, local lockdowns and a delivery van-Christmas for the balmy South Atlantic coast or a retreat on the Uruguayan pampas?

At the end of June, Uruguay was the only country in the Americas included in a list of 14 countries whose residents were free to visit EU nations from July 1. The UK government didn’t follow suit.

Indeed, while the Brexit-bound UK champions a global perspective on world affairs, its air-bridges seem based on historical package tourism trends and former colonial connections. Uruguary has a seven-day case rate of just 6 per 100,000 residents, smaller than any European nation, and on a par with Barbados and Antigua and Barbuda – both of which are on the FCO’s list of quarantine-exempt countries. 

South America's Covid case rates
South America's Covid case rates

Local tour firms specialising in the region are asking the UK government to recognise the plain facts and to enable them to prepare for any possible opening up of South American countries for business during the winter. 

“Uruguay is due to open borders on November 1 but our government seems to have a blanket ban on the continent,” says Simon Williams, director of Humboldt Travel.

“I'm expecting either Uruguay or Costa Rica to be the first countries in Latin America to open. The problem with Uruguay is the lack of direct flights, and going via Spain, Brazil or Argentina seems to be against what the UK government desires.

“In all honesty, there are many other countries that are perfectly safe to travel in and Uruguay is definitely high up that list.” 

Tourism across the region is facing a huge challenge. Data based on air bookings from travel analyst FowardKeys, provided by the Latin American Travel Association, indicates bookings to Latin America from July to September 2020 were down 90.1 per cent year-on-year, and are down 73.8 per cent for the first quarter of 2021.

Stuart Whittington, head of product at Journey Latin America, believes Uruguay is the best bet for a southern summer holiday.

“Over the past few weeks we’ve been keeping a close eye on the situation on the ground in Uruguay, as few countries anywhere have had such success at keeping their Covid rates down. Often caught in the shadow of neighbouring Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay has long been one of South America’s best kept secrets.

“If the UK government’s travel advice were to change based on Uruguay’s healthy record, we could see Brits travelling there again this winter, to enjoy some much-needed sunshine whilst discovering this oft-overlooked destination. 

“With many of its neighbours potentially remaining off the UK government’s travel list for a while longer, this could be Uruguay’s chance to shine.”

When will other countries in Latin America open up to tourists?

The below are subject to local entry regulations – often involving negative PCR tests and/or short quarantine periods – and the FCO advice for Belize, “The regulations of countries that you may pass through and / or UK requirements on travel from transit countries may affect your travel”, could apply to other destinations. The FCO has not yet added any mainland Latin American country to its list of exempt destinations.

Costa Rica reopens on November 1 - getty
Costa Rica reopens on November 1 - getty

Costa Rica is receiving a small number of international arrivals, mainly from the US. It will be open to all travellers as of November 1 and British Airways has scheduled its direct service to re-start from November. All arrivals will need to present evidence of a negative Covid-19 test. Britons will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return home. 

Panama reopened to tourism on October 12. Arrivals must show evidence of a negative test or take one at the airport. Britons will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return home. 

Peru, along with Bahamas and Puerto Rico, has been awarded a global safety and hygiene stamp by the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC); Machu Picchu is scheduled to open on November 1 – for 675 tourists per day in groups of 7 (plus a guide). All arrivals will need to present evidence of a negative Covid-19 test. Britons will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return home. 

Colombia recently re-opened its borders for limited traffic from neighbouring countries. There are a number of restrictions still in place locally, and regional lockdowns still a possibility but tourism observers believe Cartagena is likely to open up first.

While Chile’s borders remain closed to visitors, local restrictions are gradually lifting and there are tentative signs of the country reopening its borders soon. 

Belize is open to tourism; its international airport reopened on October 1. Visitors must take a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding their flight. Britons will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return home.

Cuba opened its international airports, except Havana, on October 15. German carrier Condor will operate flights to Varadero from October 31. 

Brazil has lifted travel restrictions, and the Unesco-listed Fernando de Noronha archipelago reopened to all tourists on October 10 (prior to that it had a quirky rule that only those who had already had Covid-19 could visit). Britons will need to self-isolate for 14 days on their return home.