Millions of tourists flocking to London for the Olympic Games this summer can also learn more about China's giant pandas - not by visiting a zoo, but by taking a ride in one of London's iconic black taxies.
Black-and-white stripes have been painted on 30 taxis to mimic the look of a panda, and another 20 feature a cartoon panda in its natural habitat surrounded by bamboo. Both designs feature the slogan "Chengdu, hometown of pandas, spice it up".
Painting pandas on central London taxies is the latest campaign to raise awareness of the endangered Chinese animal. The campaign is jointly run by London Taxi Advertising and the Chengdu Association for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries in Chengdu, Sichuan province, which is home to more than 80 percent of the world's panda population.
London Taxi Advertising sales director Paul Tremarco came up with the idea in March, after realizing the great amount of attention that such a campaign can bring, especially during London's Olympics.
"Taxi Advertising is a great tool for getting a message across to a mass audience, and therefore increasing awareness of Chengdu as a tourist destination and encouraging visits to the city," he said.
The taxies selected for the campaign will pick up passengers at London's most popular destinations, including Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Marble Arch and Trafalgar Square, from June 1 to Aug 31.
A London Taxi Advertising crew spent four days painting the two designs on the taxies. Since London Taxi Advertising does not own the taxies, Chengdu paid for the advertising space, according to Zhong Ying, an official from Chengdu municipal government.
Laura Hardy, a spokeswoman for London Taxi Advertising, said her crew has painted advertisements on London taxies for many clients in the travel sector, including Visit Malta, Sri Lanka Airlines and Arran Air.
"Most of our previous adverts featured iconic tourism places. But to paint a panda on a taxi is an innovative idea," she said.
Passengers who take the panda taxi rides can also enter a competition to win tickets to see Yang Guang and Tian Tian - two giant pandas that arrived at Edinburgh Zoo from Chengdu last December.
Tian Tian and Yang Guang are the first giant pandas to live in the UK for 17 years. They have received hundreds of visitors every day since their arrival.
The London Olympics is expected to attract an additional 5.3 million foreign tourists to the capital in July and August, according to organizers.
Angie Sham, an Australian, wrote on Faceook that the panda taxi is very cute, and said she fell in love with it at first sight.
The pudgy figure of the panda has been integrated into the taxi decor with the lights resembling the sparkling eyes of the animal. The images of the animal painted with the colors of the Olympic rings appear on the hood, roof and both sides of the cabs.
The final design for the panda paintings was selected by people around the world through social networking platforms including Facebook, Twitter and micro blogs.
The Chengdu Association for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries originally came up with six different designs, ranging from plain to rainbow-colored backgrounds. The top two designs were determined by a vote held on Facebook and Twitter.
According to the Chengdu association, the panda cabs will run in London for three months.
"Chengdu has held a number of panda-themed activities in recent years to promote itself and panda conservation," said Zhang Zhihe, chief of the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
In 2006, three delegations consisting of members of the Chengdu Association for Cultural Exchange with Foreign Countries and panda experts in the city spent more than 40 days visiting zoos with pandas in America, Europe and Asia.
During the "Earth Hour" initiative organized by the World Wildlife Fund in 2011, the giant panda "Meilan" served as the global ambassador and turned off a light to promote an energy-saving lifestyle, Zhang said.
By Liu Yanqiu in London and Huang Zhiling in Chengdu (China Daily)