New Zealand topped a list of 22 nations as Chinese tourists' favorite destination for the first time, according to a survey by the China Tourism Academy (CTA).
The quarterly poll measures travelers' satisfaction across key indicators including public services, environmental conditions and security. A total of 4,119 Chinese citizens were interviewed for the first quarter of 2014.
New Zealand rose 4 spots from the previous quarter, winning the hearts of Chinese holidaymakers with its scenic natural sights and low levels of pollution.
"Respondents are most satisfied with the picturesque landscape, air quality, green policies, hygiene conditions and city infrastructure. Across the board, New Zealand won positive approvals of above 80 points for each indicator," Dai Bin, President of China Tourism Academy (CTA) told CNBC.
While New Zealand's clean air provides an escape from China's smog, the promise of an outdoor adventure also fueled interest among the young and well-to-do Chinese middle class. According to China's state television broadcaster, CCTV, younger mainlanders see the country as a hotspot for road trips.
In 2013, the number of Chinese tourists visiting New Zealand jumped 16 percent on year to 228,928. Meanwhile, total expenditures by Chinese tourists rose 7 percent on year to NZ$723 million (around $621 million), statistics from the New Zealand Tourism Board show.
Rounding out the top ten
The United States leaped from the 13th position in the last quarter to the second spot in the latest rankings, while Canada, which was the most satisfying destination for 2013, took third place. Australia, Singapore, Italy, Thailand, United Kingdom, France and South Korea rounded out the top ten.
Japan fell 5 spots to the 12th position despite a tenfold on-year increase in the number of Chinese tourists for the first month of 2014. The Land of the Rising Sun issued 79,000 visas for Chinese group tourists and more than 30,000 for individual visitors, according to figures from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Japan.
"Japan is a popular holiday destination, reputable for high standards of cleanliness and service. But the high cost of living and a lack of Chinese information signs are minus points," CTA's Dai said.
The effect of MH370
Malaysia fell one spot from the previous quarter to the 16th position. Asked whether the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 had any impact on the ratings, Dai said: "While MH370 does have an impact on travel sentiment, we think it may be temporary as the primary concerns are still other indicators like safety."
"Chinese tourists love to visit Malaysia as it is comparatively cheaper and nearer to China but safety remains a key concern. The availability of Chinese information signs, accommodation and cityscape are also below-expectations," the CTA added.
China currently accounts for nearly 12 percent of Malaysia's total tourists and 0.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Flight MH370 vanished on March 8 en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur; around two-thirds of the 239 people on board were Chinese. The Malaysian government's handling of the search effort has been heavily criticized by China, leading some to call for boycotts against Malaysia.
Recent data by Malaysia Inbound Tourism Association showed that close to 30 percent of Chinese visitors have cancelled their bookings to Malaysia since the incident.
Chinese tourism to continue expanding
An estimated 26.4 million mainlanders traveled overseas in the first quarter of 2014, up 17 percent on year, the poll revealed. Bad pollution was the primary reason that Chinese ventured overseas and will likely remain an impetus in the second-quarter, the survey found.
However, while holidaymakers remained undeterred by the Chinese yuan's recent depreciation, CTA expects the 10 percent hike in the price of tour group packages due to take effect in May, to curb travel demand in the world's second-largest economy.