Alexander Kim is an amateur guide, professional traveller and the co-founder of Sputnik, an online tour service. At the moment, there are almost 7,000 Sputnik tours through Moscow, Prague, Barcelona, Istanbul and New York available on the website – and it all started here, in Saint Petersburg, on Vasilievsky Island.
We’re going to try plov and shurpa in one of the hidden Uzbek cafе́s in Saint Petersburg – Alexander can easily show you all of them. He seems to know every corner of Vasilievsky, as he’s been living and working in this part of the city for years. Here in 2012, together with Alexandra Skorobogatova, he launched Sputnik: city tours in the “locals meet travellers” format, with low prices, amateur guides only and English as the main working language. The idea behind the startup was the chance to see Saint Petersburg from the most unusual angles, exploring bars, public baths, Orthodox religious places or student houses. It also meant that everyone from the city could register on the website, add their own tour, wait for approval then start earning money and having fun.
“Everything was so positive back in 2012,” Alexander recalls. “The Russian economy was growing, with the growth in the number of tourists too, and it seemed like every startup in tourism would be successful.”
But soon the Sputnik team realised that they needed to change the direction of their work: foreigners, their target audience, started asking not for vegan places and student houses but for the Hermitage and the standard bus excursions. This makes sense – a lot of Saint Petersburg visitors simply come to the city for three days and do not have a lot of time for sightseeing. This was when Sputnik started to collaborate more with professional guides, and concentrate on domestic Russian tourism. In 2014, 5,000 people used the service; in 2015 this figure was about three times bigger.
“Our first idea – locals for foreigners – was a utopia. It’s still too narrow to develop, and the time hasn’t come for it yet; the demand is too low,” says Alexander. “From a business point of view it’s more advantageous for us to work with the Russian language. For one thing the potential is bigger; second, we know exactly how to do it”.
When I ask about how the project is financed, Alexander explains to me the concept of the “three Fs”: Fools, Friends, Family. He’s got his family to invest in developing the business. It’s almost impossible to attract investors now, he says, because we’re in Russia and the tourist influx has declined by 30% in recent year. Also, the guides pay a 20% fee for using the Sputnik website. In 2013 the grant “Start Fellows” from Milner and Durov to the amount of $25,000 let them launch tour services in Moscow and in Kiev, expand the team to six people and start working full-time.
Nowadays, Sputnik is a service which combines both traditional and experimental tours – things such as “An introduction to Uzbek food” by Alexander himself are still available on the website and can be in-demand for experienced travellers who’ve seen enough palaces and roofs. “I have regular requests for this tour, but not that often: in summer I do it twice a month. It can’t be a primary income for anyone, you see.” says the guide. “This particular tour includes three topics – Central Asia, migrants and food. First I take foreigners to the market where fruits and spices are sold, and then I bring them to Uzbek cafе́s like this one”.
With the Sputnik team, Alexander Kim makes Saint Petersburg a better place to live and to visit. He’s also one of the originators of Restaurant Day, and a co-organiser of the Open Map festival which promotes the idea of “locals meet locals”. This festival of free city tours will take place twice in the upcoming summer.
The top three Sputnik tours in English:
1. Bars of Saint Petersburg by journalist and musician Irina. Small DJ-bars with nice music and funny drink names, jazz bars with live music and old school cocktails, karaoke bars and trash bars — you’ll get to see everything. Price: 600 rubles per person.
2. Metro Palaces by tour guide Vladimir. The tour, dedicated to the post-war history of Leningrad and its citizens, takes you through the most opulent stations on the red line: from Avtovo to Ploschad Vosstaniya. Price: 3750 rubles per group.
3. Red Bermuda Triangle by urban ecologist and activist Arsene. Red Triangle is one of the most spectacular historic industrial complexes of old Saint Petersburg, surrounded with working class areas from the end of the 19th century. Price: 2500 rubles per group.