Shaka Guide is an Oahu-based company that produces downloadable driving audio tours for popular vacation and tourism destinations all over Hawaii. Starting earlier this April, the company now also offers six tours in Utah, one for each of the “Mighty Five” national parks—Zion, Capitol Reef, Bryce, Arches and Canyonlands—plus a La Sal Mountain Loop Road tour.
The company’s mission is to “connect people with places through storytelling.” The tours give snippets of information about each stop on their itineraries, including natural and human history, natural science facts and explanations, and responsible recreation messaging.
Shaka Guide co-founder Andrew Fowers said the company wants to engage with the communities where tours are offered and “be representative of something the community can be proud about.”
“It’s not just a park,” he said. “It’s a story, it’s a community, it’s a people.”
Fowers came up with the idea for Shaka Guide while studying accounting at Brigham Young University Hawaii. While in school he entered a business plan competition, and his audio tour CD concept won second place. He produced 1,000 copies of his initial tours, but he said the CDs sat on his dorm room coffee table for the next couple of years. Though the CDs didn’t sell, he held on to the idea, and later adapted it to sync with GPS devices popular in cars at the time (around 2010.) He partnered with car rental companies—visitors could add the tour on to the cost of a rental car while they explored Hawaii. In 2016 Fowers and his wife, Rita, launched Shaka Guide, which offers downloadable tours through its own app. The tours include directions, stories, music and travel tips and recommendations; they work off-line and do not expire.
The pandemic was a boon for the Shaka Guide business model, as people sought to vacation with minimal social interaction. Last year Shaka Guide counted over 280,000 downloads (all Hawaii tours).
“That’s a very small percentage of the nine million visitors that come to Hawaii every year,” Fowers noted.
Looking for a new area to expand the company, Fowers turned to his home state of Utah, where he was born and where his family would often vacation after they moved to California. His familiarity with the destinations and the proximity of the “Mighty Five” national parks made it an appealing choice for the next set of Shaka Guide tours.
“I love the history and the culture there,” Fowers added.
Creating the tours
Fowers said the company strives to maintain accurate content. A lot of the stories and information were gathered from books, he said, with researchers checking multiple sources to verify information. Shaka writers also spoke with park rangers about some of the stops. In November, Fowers came to Moab for a photo shoot to create promotional images, and hired two locals who work as guides. They shared a lot of stories and background, he said, especially about Charlie Steen, whose major uranium discovery and subsequent rags-to-riches story is legendary in Grand County.
“They were really insightful on their feedback and some of the local sentiment in Moab,” Fowers said, though they were not hired specifically to provide local perspective.
Fowers has also been in touch with the Moab Area Travel Council Advisory Board, and licensed the “Do It Like a Local” song written and performed by Moab resident David Steward and his fellow Moab musicians Eric Jones and Glenn Sherrill and produced by the Travel Council.
Fowers said multiple Shaka employees have been to every spot included on the tours, and they revisited throughout the development process to test how the tour works in real life.
“If someone’s paying $20 for this, it better be dang good,” he said.
The tours are narrated in a campy style: “Now, some of these rocks came from as far away as Virginia—now, ain’t that amazing!” the narrator exclaims during an explanation of the geology of Canyonlands National Park. Jokes and folksy phrases sprinkled into the brief scientific explanations and history facts keep the tone light and accessible to all ages. Leading up to a stop at dinosaur tracks, the theme song from the movie “Jurassic Park” ushers in the narration.
In addition to entertaining stories and educational history and science facts, the tours include information about responsible recreation, particularly about staying on trails and taking care not to step on the fragile and ecologically critical desert biocrust.
Shaka Guide also gives back to the areas the tours navigate through donations to stewardship organizations. When customers purchase a tour, they can select a nonprofit (from a provided list) to receive a percentage of the purchase price. For the Moab area, buyers can choose to donate to the National Parks Conservation Association, Friends of Arches and Canyonlands, or the Canyonlands Natural History Association.
A 2021 study from the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Institute surveyed 14 areas in Utah to find out how tourism is perceived across the state. The recently-released report singled out the Moab as particularly notable:
“Moab area responses… tend towards a more negative view of tourism despite having the largest portion of respondents who have some part of their household income depend on tourism-related activities (47%) and the highest portion of respondents saying tourism is “very important” to the economy in their area (72%),” the report reads.
Over 70% of Moab respondents said the Utah Office of Tourism should educate visitors on minimizing impacts and traveling responsibly; over half of Moab respondents agreed that the negative effects of tourism outweigh the benefits.
“They killed the Golden Goose. There are too many tourists for what the small town and land can support. STOP ADVERTISING!!!!!” wrote one Moab area survey respondent.
Fowers said he understands concerns from Moabites about beloved areas being overrun with visitors—as a resident of Hawaii, he’s experienced the same feeling. All of the selected stops on Shaka Guide tours are at signed pull-outs, overlooks, trailheads or destinations, he said, and the tours only travel along paved or well-graded roads. When he discovered an off-the-beaten-path spot in Arches National Park, he declined to add it to the tour.
“We don’t want to go rogue and tell people to go where it’s not appropriate or not safe,” he said.
Shaka Guide is also open to feedback and revision. As an example, Fowers recounted how one of the Hawaii tours at one point included a stop at a certain waterfall. When he heard from a Native Hawaiian group expressing concerns about the stop, explaining that it is a culturally sensitive place, Shaka Guide removed it from the tour.
“We’re always going to be sensitive to the locals,” Fowers said, and invited Moab locals to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fowers said that most Shaka Guide buyers learn about the company through word of mouth. The company is also advertising its new Utah tours on Facebook and Google and marketing to previous customers.
To see a list of stops included in each tour and hear a sample of the audio, visit www.shakaguide.com.