CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The Southeastern Wildlife Exposition will kick off with its annual gala on Thursday night leading into three days of art, entertainment, food, and demonstrations.

Known as “SEWE” to many, the weekend festival that promotes wildlife art and nature conservation began in February 1983 with about 100 artists and exhibitors and 5,000 attendees. It has since grown into one of Charleston’s most anticipated festivals, which serves as a kickoff to the tourism season.

Organizers say SEWE now welcomes an approximated 500 artists, exhibitors, and wildlife experts. It also sees more than 40,000 attendees, generating an estimated $50 million in economic impact each year.

From SEWE to the Cooper River Bridge Run, the Credit One Charleston Open, and even Spoleto Festival each attract thousands of out-of-town visitors through the spring and summer months.

Hotels across the peninsula are booked up, and experts say that is simply business as usual.

“SEWE is one of the highest occupancy rates of the year this weekend. It’s a mix of the draw that SEWE has and because of the time of the year,” said Doug Warner, executive vice president of Explore Charleston. “Before SEWE, this was a really slow time of the year for us. There are 15,000 individuals in our community who depend on the hospitality sector for their livelihood.”

Explore Charleston said billions of dollars are generated for the Charleston community through tourism season.

While promoting wildlife art and nature conservation, SEWE aims to protect the natural environment. The goal of the annual festival is to make “positive contributions, through entertainment, to the genre of wildlife art, conservation, education, and the local, regional and state economies,” according to the organization.

Handcrafted goods by artisans, craftsmen, and tastemakers from around the country are put on display during the annual event, along with wildlife and nature paintings, carvings, and sculpture.

Top events include live demonstrations and a sporting village. Popular DockDogs is always a main draw for those attending the festival along with sheep herding and retriever demonstrations, and fly-fishing demos at Brittlebank Park.

If you’re bringing the whole family the most child-friendly SEWE venues will be at Brittlebank Park where kid activities and games can be found in the “Kids Zone.” You’ll also find camel rides, an exotic petting zoo, educational programs, and more.

Head over to Marion Square for cooking and chef demos. For everything you need to know, plus tickets to the festival, can be found by clicking here.