On a chilly Monday in early December, the main streets of Jasper are nearly deserted.
The usually packed restaurants and gift shops are empty, as are blocks upon blocks of hotel parking lots in the western Alberta mountain town.
At the Marmot Basin ski resort, the only delay in getting onto the chair lift is to pull up your required face mask.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down travel in March 2020, the tourism-dependent town was quick to feel the effect.
Usually swollen with tens of thousands of visitors, the mountain escape shrunk to just its 5,000 residents.
Eventually, albeit slowly, Albertans started to return. Some chose the destination after having to cancel international trips.
After being open more than a decade, CoCo’s Café saw its customer base go from mostly tourists to all locals.
“I had so much support and it was not enough without tourism, Jasper would not survive. Like, there is no possible way,” said owner Lynn Wannop.
The town knows tourism will be crucial in its economic rebound, but attracting visitors and catering to a changed way of life will take creativity.
In the past, marketing has centered around the obvious assets the town offers. Tourism Jasper President and CEO James Jackson calls it the “mountains, moose and Mounties” approach.
But Jackson is moving away from that. Instead, focusing on the safety of the town. That includes the ability to book a fully self-service cabin where visitors can avoid potential virus exposure from other tourists.
Another selling feature — the safety the town offers with its inclusivity.
On its website, Tourism Jasper has an entire page dedicated to the LGBTQ travellers.
Blogs, videos and photos feature the LGBTQ community and gives them recommendations for where to eat, sleep and tour.
“There wasn’t a sophisticated marketing strategy developed to focus specifically on that market,” Jackson explained.
“We just sort of looked at our community, the values that it holds and realized that, you know, this place is incredibly open and safe, welcoming and inclusive.”
Locals believe those values come from the high number of international workers who flood the ski hills and campgrounds.
“We get to spend six months a year with people from all over the world. So as a small place, we do get so many different perspectives just injected in,” Jasper Pride Co-chair Maggie Sammon told Global News.
To capitalize on that, Jasper Pride is extending its renowned festival from four days to 10 in 2022. It is the only gay ski week in a Canadian national park.
The festival was mostly virtual this year due to health restrictions so organizers are hoping a longer, larger event brings in visitors from around the world.
“If we bring in 100,000 people who will all book their hotel rooms and they all come, for instance, to Coco’s Cafe to buy their coffee and they come to the local restaurants, that’s an economic boost as well,” explained festival co-chair Joost Tijssen.
“I’m not going to lie, after COVID, I think every community could need a boost like that.”
Locals say they’ve heard from tourists how much the inclusive nature of the town means to them.
Same-sex couples will come from countries where they could be jailed, or worse, for walking down the street holding hands.
Tijssen hopes people recognize that and use that knowledge when planning their next vacation.
“Not being able to go to a country where you cannot be yourself, please don’t go. Spend your money elsewhere because they don’t deserve it.”
Wannop first put a pride sticker in the window of CoCo’s more than a decade ago and hopes tourists know Jasper will continue to be a safe place in the future.
“We as young business owners, when I’ve got a number of friends like we are the ones that are going to be running this town in the years to come. So we need to make sure that it’s somewhere that we’re proud to call home,” said Wannop.
Indigenous tourism is the fastest growing part of the tourism sector and Jasper boasts several offerings.
Matricia Bauer’s company, Warrior Women, does corporate training, fireside chats and plant walks to share Indigenous knowledge in and around Jasper.
The plant walks gives visitors a hand on way to learn about things that can be found in the park that Indigenous people use in traditional cooking or medicine.
After 215 child graves were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, Bauer says interest increased.
“People are looking for their own personal reconciliation and how they how are they personally responsible for that?”
That includes Canadians adding in an educational experience to their weekend of skiing or hiking.
But international tourists have also been reaching out to learn about the past, present and future of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Joe Urie does tours with his business Jasper Tour Company.
Like most groups in the town, he’ll get tourists close to wildlife but he caters to groups looking for more than a photo.
“If you are that person, there’s somebody else that you want to go with, not me,” admitted Urie.
“I certainly want to get you in close proximity with the bear where it’s safe to do so. But that’s not the objective.”
Instead, he relies on his Metis culture to share words, stories and jokes about the Jasper area.
Urie says he is white passing, which led to a difficult relationship with his Metis background growing up.
“It was people like me in the past that had the ability to hide in plain sight.,” Urie explained.
“That meant your family could be removed from the kind of persecution that was happening due to colonialism to a lot of other Indigenous people.”
Bauer had the opposite experience. As part of the 60s Scoop, she was adopted into a white family and went through what she calls an “identity crisis.”
Now, sharing her knowledge with others has helped her heal.
“As an Indigenous person, we’ve always worn that heavy blanket of knowledge. We’ve always been aware of the racism that has existed and we’ve carried that story alone,” Bauer said.
“The fact that there is a bigger general awareness in Canadian society means that we shoulder the burden collectively, which means that it lightens the load for Indigenous people.”
Urie has also found the same. That was especially true after a recent tour with a group from Edmonton looking to learn how they can participate in reconciliation.
“We came away feeling so refreshed together, right? Like, I can feel this and I can feel it going in the right direction,” he said. “I was so thankful for those people, just as much as they were thankful for the trip they had with me.”
Both Urie and Bauer say having people pay for their Indigenous teachings is an important part of reconciliation.
“You call that economic reconciliation, and that means elevating Indigenous people to the point where they’re basically even, if not above that what is is naturally occurring,” explained Bauer.
“I hope people don’t ever fear that that Indigenous tourism is trying to occupy all the space. It’s not. It’s just trying to get a space that deserved all along,” Urie agreed.
It’s a space honoured in Jasper more than ever as the town works to prove it is more than mountains for tourists to enjoy.