Last updated: 10:50 AM ET, Mon November 04 2013

The Purple Cabs of Burgeoning Baku

For cosmopolitan travelers discovering Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, for the first time, seeing a London Fairway cab zip up to the curb some 2,500 miles from its native habitat provokes wonder, nostalgia and more than a little delight.

The once-ubiquitous London Fairway cabs that drove in last year’s nostalgic closing Olympic ceremonies are now winding down a 65-year run on the crowded streets of London. But England’s loss is the world’s gain as forward-looking cities are making the iconic but orphaned cars available to their own tourists and locals alike.

Baku, the largest city on the Caspian Sea, has long been a place where desirable resources abounded. Alexander the Great travelled here to confer with kings. Legend says that when Marco Polo passed through here, he marveled at how even then oil, now the key to this strategic region, was “not used for food, but as a fuel.”

While Alexander had to travel on horseback, however, travelers to modern Baku get to ride in comfort in traditional London black taxi, though the vehicles have been repainted purple. The streets of the city are teeming with purple cabs manufactured by the same company that kept generations of English cab drivers supplied with cars. It may be shocking to see these familiar vehicles 2,500 miles from home, but they are a symbol of how closely integrated even once-isolated corners of the global economy have become.

Baku is a city of the world now, with an increased emphasis on energy innovation driving professional travel and investment in educational institutions that draw as much as 25 percent of their students and 30 percent of their professional staff from other countries. And as in many other new regional hubs, those students and other temporary residents needed a world-class mode of ground transportation without having to clog the ancient streets with privately owned vehicles.

Azerbaijan now supports the largest overseas fleet of London cabs in the world. Ilham Aliyev, the country’s forward-thinking president, hand-picked the Fairway cabs in 2011 to replace the menagerie of unregulated and often unmarked taxis that provided transportation between Baku’s restaurants, caviar markets and rug dealers.

Baku itself is poised for a boom in tourism, so those same cabs will soon be transporting travelers to the city’s attractions and special events. For example, the European Games are coming to the city in 2015, so the cabs will soon ferry a new breed of tourists to the country’s newly built ski resorts and high-level golf clubs as well as markets, colorful restaurants and UNESCO World Cultural List-designated mugam folk music venues.

According to Euromonitor International, 2011 was officially the Year of Tourism in Azerbaijan and the country’s leadership views tourism as a serious source of income in the longer term. In order to encourage more tourists, some countries are considering a visa-free arrangement for their citizens to visit Azerbaijan.

The inaugural European Games will bring athletes from as far away as Iceland to Baku in 2015, while winter sports like skiing are also a major focus of development. For example, the Shakhdag tourist hotel, which opened in 2012, will soon be large enough to accommodate 10,000 tourists.

The first golf course in Azerbaijan in the Caucasus is being developed. The Quba Golf Club, located near Baku, is an 18-hole course meeting all PGA standards and able to host international tournaments. More than 60 hectares of the golf course area is designed for high level of golf. U.K.-based golf architecture firm International Design Group is in charge of the project, with construction being handled by Total Golf Construction.

“This will be the first golfing development in Azerbaijan,” said Golf Federation President Anar Mammedov. “Ultimately we are striving for excellence and believe that the quality experiences provided with international standards will ensure the satisfaction of our guests and promote the growth of golf in the country.”

Of course, Azerbaijan, considered to be a birthplace of the oil industry, has grown exponentially since the country gained independence. As the oil and gas industry develops, the investment in energy innovation continues to focus on growth and sustainability through technological innovations and continued re-investment in the industry, as well as utilizing the oil and gas income to improve the educational system and grow new business areas.

Baku’s purple taxis are only a reflection of the seriously evolving economy of Azerbaijan. As former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar said during a trip to Baku in May: “President Aliyev has institutionalized transparency mechanisms so that citizens can see energy revenues coming into the government and how they are being spent, and this is an important example for countries with new-found oil wealth.”

Ask any Azeri and you’ll find the purple taxis running throughout the city day and night are a great comfort. They also are an outward sign of a promise by President Aliyev of more needed, practical changes to come in Baku and throughout Azerbaijan, including a burgeoning tourism industry. For a video of Baku’s new cabs, click on Purple Cabs of Baku.