BANGKOK - Three more Thai islands opened to vaccinated foreign tourists on Thursday despite a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases propelled by the Delta variant.
The islands -- Samui, Tao and Phangan -- welcomed visitors as part of the kingdom's push to revive its battered tourism industry.
Thailand launched its "sandbox" scheme on July 1, allowing vaccinated travelers to visit Phuket island. Tourists do not have to quarantine in a hotel but can not leave Phuket for 2 weeks.
Under Thursday's expansion, tourists must stay at an approved hotel on Samui for a week and can leave their accommodation on day 4.
They will have to produce a negative COVID-19 test before being allowed to venture to Tao or Phangan after their first week.
The rest of the country is struggling to rein in infections from the Delta variant, which authorities say now makes up nearly 80 percent of its caseload.
Virus hotspot Bangkok and 9 provinces are under tightened restrictions, including a night-time curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than 5 people.
Thailand recorded almost 9,200 new infections and a record daily high of 98 deaths on Thursday.
'DON'T WANT TO RUSH'
Phuket has received 5,000 foreign tourists since its reopening, 10 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19.
Authorities are not expecting a big influx of tourists immediately to Samui and the other 2 islands.
Tourism Association of Koh Samui president Ratchaporn Poolsawadee described Thursday's start of the "Samui Plus" scheme as a soft opening.
He said 75 percent of residents on the 3 islands were vaccinated.
"It is expected that arrivals will improve after tourists learn the rules and regulations. And then some rules and regulations could be tweaked," Ratchaporn told AFP.
"We don't want to rush (Samui Plus)."
Tourism makes up one fifth of Thailand's national income and the economy is suffering its worst performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis.
Ratchaporn said tourism was worth $918 million to Samui before the pandemic but the virus had cut turnover to $88 million last year.