A desolate range of orange sand dunes under a clear blue sky seems unimaginably far from the bloodshed that almost ripped apart Africa's second-largest country.

Now that peace is returning after what are known as the dark years, Algeria hopes it can tempt foreigners to brave its unspoiled desert landscapes dotted with palm-lined oases and the ruins of ancient fortified villages known as ksars.

But images of razed villages, their inhabitants butchered, are hard to forget after a decade of Islamic rebel violence that killed more than 150,000 people in Algeria.

Muslim countries in North Africa have become more popular with tourists, although most choose the safer destinations of Morocco and Tunisia, where millions flock every year to bazaars, casbahs, beaches and the desert.

It's no surprise that few foreign tourists consider a vacation to Algeria's breathtaking Sahara desert.

"Algeria's desert is the untapped beauty of North Africa and the few who dare come, return again. Once you're hooked you want more," said Kada Chouli, a guide born in the desert near the red oasis town of Timimoun.

"It is a drug for the few daring," he said, taking off his sandals to walk along the edge of a dune.

Last year, rebels kidnapped 32 European tourists in Algeria's desert, which plunged the almost nonexistent tourist industry further into isolation.

"Some tour companies closed and others, like mine, trimmed operations. It has been a tough year," said Mohamed Kherrazi, who heads one of Algeria's largest desert guide and tour firms.

Although it has electricity and telephone lines, Timimoun -- a town of several thousand people about 550 miles south of the capital, Algiers -- is a walk back in time.

Few foreigners visit what was once the gem of Algeria's oases, with a labyrinth of narrow red-clay streets and an ancient salt lake.

The years of violence meant Timimoun fell into neglect. Its guides were forced to work as taxi drivers, and artisans took up date farming, smuggling cigarettes or other commerce.

Visitors to Timimoun, sitting in the Grand Erg Occidental desert, can now ride camels with Tuareg nomads and sleep on dunes under the stars undisturbed by packs of tourists.

"Our clients are taken straight from the airport to the desert. The hard-core adventurous ones we take on a week-long camel ride through the desert, just like Lawrence of Arabia did," said Kherrazi, referring to the British soldier and author who served in the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule in 1916-18 and was romanticized in the film of the same name by actor Peter O'Toole.

A 45-mile loop around Timimoun goes through dozens of ancient villages where life has seen little change in decades, and farming or sheepherding is common.

In dusty Tamentit, a former Jewish settlement, local crafts seller Bachir laments the good times of the 1980s.

"You're my first customer in over a year but not the last, God willing," said Bachir, dusting off some old pottery.

The true number of foreign tourists visiting Algeria is hard to judge, but experts say it is a fraction of those drawn to its neighbors.

As Algeria, rich in oil and gas, fought for its survival and crushed Islamic rebels bent on creating a Taliban-style nation, tourism suffered.

Moulou Arab, director of Timimoun's only resort hotel, said the south had long been neglected but there was new hope with the reelection of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

Calls for investment to develop the tourist industry are growing louder, as about a quarter of workers are jobless.

"Algeria's image is improving, and we hope that means foreigners will come, but we must provide the infrastructure, and for that we need the government's help," Arab said.

Sipping traditional mint tea and eating dates in the desert city of Adrar farther south, Kherrazi said a lack of investment was holding back tourism, not security concerns.

"For 300 euros [$363] you get an all-comprehensive week in Tunisia, including flight, hotel and food," he said. "Just the plane ticket to Algeria costs 400 euros."

Since Khalifa Airways went bust last June, state-owned Air Algerie is the only airline flying to the south. It occasionally provides charter trips from Europe.

"Against the odds we are still here, and we accommodate a handful of European tourists each week," said Mustapha Adel, head of Timimoun's largest tour operator, ONAT.

"More will come; it's [only] a matter of time before this part of the world is discovered."