Save the date SEWE kicks off the tourism season; officials call outlook ‘positive’

The “Dock Dog” competition at Brittlebank Park has become a calling card for the annual Southeastern Wildlife Expo.

The annual call of the wild this week in downtown Charleston signals the start of the local tourism season. And hospitality officials like what they’re hearing about the year ahead.

“At this point, we’ve had I think three years in a row of record tourism numbers by every metric we measure,” said Duane Parrish, executive director of the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. “I have no reason to believe 2016 won’t be the same.”

The first bellwether event for the Charleston visitor industry is the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, which runs Friday through Sunday.

“All signs are positive,” said John Powell, executive director.

Now in its 34th year, SEWE returns in 2016 to the rebuilt and newly reopened Gaillard Center, one of the main venues.

“In a lot of ways we’re reintroducing that facility to lot of our attendees,” Powell said. “This is the first time a lot of those folks will be in the space.”

Powell expects SEWE to draw about 35,000 to 40,000 outdoors enthusiasts this week to pick up some wildlife art, sample local cuisine, attend lectures or take in the popular “Dock Dogs” jumping competition at Brittlebank Park.

“It can be as much as 60 percent from out of town. ... We know retailers and hotels rely on us, and we take that seriously,” he said.

Powell said SEWE staffers have noticed an increase in online requests for directions to various events, a hint that the festival’s impact extends beyond the peninsula.

“That means they’re staying at hotels ... in Mount Pleasant, West Ashley and North Charleston,” he said. “That’s good.”

Parrish, the state tourism chief, said the “big plus” for the visitor industry this year is the falling price of gasoline, a boost for “drive-to” destinations like South Carolina.

According to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report, the national average was about $1.78 late last week, down more than 16 percent from a year ago.

“I’m seeing gas below $1.50,” Parrish said Wednesday.

Charleston also is likely to benefit from expanding nonstop air service options. To boot, the peninsula has gained several hundred new hotel rooms since this time last year.

“That obviously gives you a chance to capture unaccommodated demand,” Parrish said.

He even sees a silver lining in the state’s epic October floods, which put a dent in the fall tourism season and pulled down local hotel occupancy rates.

“Some of those people who canceled will rebook in the spring or have already rebooked,” Parrish said. “So we should see a bump from that, as well.”

Some of the city’s other large annual tourist magnets also are feeling upbeat about how the 2016 season is shaping up.

At the 11th annual Charleston Wine + Food, which starts March 2, ticket sales are outpacing all previous years, spokeswoman Laura Kate Whitney said. Visitors make up about 40 percent of attendees at the big culinary festival, she added.

Similarly, registrations for April’s 39th Cooper River Bridge Run were running ahead of last year’s volume by about 3,000 entries as of last week, said race director Julian Smith. In 2015, about 33,000 runners and walkers signed up, which was off slightly from previous years. Smith said he expects a bigger crowd of runners and walkers this spring.

“We get a large number of people who come from out of state,” he said, adding that “every state is represented” already in the 2016 field.

As for the Spoleto Festival USA, which kicks off its 40th year Memorial Day weekend and typically attracts a 50-50 mix of visitors and locals, tickets sales started just a few weeks ago.

Spokeswoman Jennifer Scott said while it’s still early in that process, the outlook for the 17-day arts extravaganza is encouraging, noting offerings such as a production of DuBose Heyward’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Gaillard Center.

“Interest is very strong, and there’s a lot of excitement about this season,” she said.

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572.