Chen Yung-shun, an executive of a steel company in Taipei, and Huang Shusong, who runs a shipping company in Shenzhen, share one hope - that the 52-year-old ban on direct shipping across the Taiwan Strait will be lifted. The pair both attended a shipping conference - the Fifth Seminar on Cross-Strait Shipping - in Shenzhen early last week. For both, the seminar was not just a meeting of minds, but an opportunity to find out how fast things had changed. And the changes have been significant. Last month, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian endorsed recommendations from a high-level panel to speed up preparations for direct transport links with the mainland. Meanwhile, Beijing's stance is also thawing. According to mainland representatives who attended the seminar, President Jiang Zemin had personally endorsed the event in June. In just seven weeks, its organiser - China's Association for Shipping Across the Taiwan Straits - sent out hundreds of invitations. The response was overwhelming. It was originally expected that 200 shipping executives would attend, but the seminar attracted 400, including a mainland vice-minister of communications. For mainland participants, the three-day seminar signalled the start of a new era. Officials representing dozens of mainland ports gave presentations trying to convince seminar participants they could handle direct shipping with Taiwan. Seven port cities - Tianjin, Wenzhou, Yantai, Shantou, Quanzhou, Zhangzhou and Fuzhou - said they had already started preparing. Not to be outdone, three other competing cities - Qingdao, Ningbo and Dalian - announced they had asked the central Government to select them as the first ports to be open for direct shipping with Taiwan. Wang Xinnian, executive vice-director of the Ningbo Port Authority, had a simple reason for being enthusiastic. 'We hope the economy of Ningbo city and its neighbouring regions could benefit,' he said. As for Taiwan businessmen, direct shipping was said to be important as it would lower production costs. 'Direct shipping means the export shipping costs could be reduced by at least US$40 [HK$311] per container,' said Chen Yun-shun, project manager of China Steel Express in Taipei. 'This will greatly increase our international competitiveness.' Mr Huang, of the state-run China Ocean Shipping Agency, said direct shipping would happen once outstanding problems were resolved. One such problem was agreeing on the status of cross-strait shipping. While the mainland sees it as domestic shipping, Taiwan prefers a more flexible definition. Liu Wen-hsiung, a Taiwan legislator from Kaohsiung, said: 'The final solution will require wisdom . . . from both sides.'