CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – The tourism season is officially underway across the Charleston region. Lowcountry officials say this year’s big return at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE) should serve as a sign of what’s to come over the course of 2022’s tourism season. Officials and business owners say this year’s SEWE celebration may have been among the strongest ever.

With SEWE having come and gone, officials say the annual tourism season warm-up served as a litmus test for what could be coming to the Lowcountry this summer. Those officials say it could be a record-breaking year for both SEWE and tourism.

“Crowds were – pretty much exceeded anything we’ve ever had we think,” says CEO and President of SEWE, Jimmy Huggins.

The crowd sizes were noticed beyond the five SEWE locations, including at local businesses and restaurants. Restaurant and business owners say the big return was a needed boost.

“We did great – one of the busiest weekends of the year for us,” says Eli Hyman, Owner of Hyman’s Seafood in Downtown Charleston. “Actually, our numbers were better than in 2018 and 2019 with a lot less staff.”

For SEWE officials, turnout far exceeded expectations at the 2022 festival with many events selling out and exhibitors saying they saw some of their best profits.

“We didn’t know why or if that was going to indicate how many people would be here but they were here by the mob,” says Huggins.

For tourism officials across the City of Charleston and Lowcountry, they say they high turnout will likely serve as insight behind what’s to come over the next several months.

“The preliminary numbers show that it was an incredible year for SEWE and a great start to the visitor season for us,” says Doug Warner, Vice President of Media and Innovation for Explore Charleston.

The successful event came just days after Explore Charleston received it’s 2021 tourism numbers. Warner says the city saw a strong tourism return last year, almost beating 2019’s record setting numbers before COVID-19 hit in 2020.

“They were actually much closer than we thought.” says Warner. “When we went in and revised what we were expecting for ‘2021, we were much more conservative than the numbers actually showed.”

With a sign of a strong tourism season on the horizon, Huggins says his focus is on improving and planning for larger crowds at SEWE 2023. Lowcountry officials say they are ready to put Charleston’s hospitality scene back on the map.

“This year was a little crowded in a few places so we’re going to try to remedy that next year but I just hope it will be as good next year as it was this year,” says Huggins.

“And I expect they are going to have a really great year,” says Warner.

Officials with SEWE and Explore Charleston say they won’t have a final numbers count on people and economic impact for a few days but are expecting it to be a banner year for the festival’s 40th anniversary.