'A ghost town': Jasper counting down to June 1 and a return of tourists to the national park

·3 min read

The streets of Jasper are eerily quiet. Businesses are struggling to stay afloat and the stress is having an impact on people's mental health, says the municipality's mayor.

It's going to be a little longer before things will start to turn around — and when they do reopen, the community will be more dependent on Alberta tourists than ever before, Mayor Richard Ireland told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday.

"It is very strange. I've never seen a time like this at any time in my life and I was born in the community," Ireland said about the empty streets and closed businesses.

"It is very surreal. People are referencing it appearing to be a ghost town — and that's probably accurate."

In mid-March, less than a week after COVID-19 was declared a worldwide pandemic, Marmot Basin suspended its operations and Jasper National Park officials urged tourists to stay away, effectively cutting the winter tourism season by about six weeks.

The May long weekend normally signifies the start of the summer tourism season but this year, the municipality sent out a plea to would-be travellers to abide by provincial recommendations and stay away.

But the effort to protect the health and safety of Jasper residents has also shut off the main engine that drives its economy.

Adrienne Lamb/CBC
Adrienne Lamb/CBC

"Businesses have been shut down for about 10 weeks. It's been devastating to our local commercial sector. It's just about across the board that businesses are shut down because we rely almost entirely on tourism here," Ireland said.

"So on the one hand, they need to see some revenue, they have to get back to work. There's health, mental health reasons as well. People need to get back to employment."

But residents also understand that things can't be rushed, he added.

"People understand that they have to be cautious, they have to be careful, they have to provide a safe environment … Those things have to be balanced and people are working hard to be in that position. But we're not there quite yet."

Most of Alberta was allowed to start down the path to reopening on May 14, including restricted openings of restaurants, retail and salons. Ireland said Jasper businesses have also started the process of reopening without really having a market to sell to.

"Parks Canada, which is of course the draw to our community, is not yet in a position to welcome visitors," he said.

June 1 has been identified by Parks Canada as the likely date that it will start reopening. Hotels, including the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, will reopen on that day. Camping in national parks will follow on about June 21, he said.

The "slow ramp-up" will be exacerbated by the lack of international tourists, Ireland added.

In the year ending March 2019, the seven mountain parks, all located in Alberta and B.C., hosted almost 16 million visitors, with the Banff and Jasper parks among the most popular.

Ireland believes that international travel is "probably at least a year away," meaning that visits from Albertans — and, he said, eventually other Canadians — will be critical to getting the town back on its feet.

"So many people … regard Jasper as their backyard and we're thrilled that they do. And as soon as the backyard is able to receive them, we'll welcome them back and they will be the ones that help us launch our local recovery," he said.

"Right now, we're interested in getting the message out that now is not yet the time. It soon will be, but in the meantime, you could have an active hand in helping keep Jasper safe — and then we will welcome you enthusiastically when the time is right."