Serving cold drinks to rich vacationers at a luxurious retreat in the hills of western Uganda, George Kaganda, a barman, says tourism has been good to him.

"I have 12 children and because of my steady employment they will all have land when I am gone," the 51-year-old said.

Kaganda said the hotel industry had freed him from the poverty suffered by millions of Ugandans living in remote rural areas like this.

With attractions such as gorilla tracking and white-water rafting, tourism is now beating fish and coffee as the country's top foreign exchange earner, and the government is increasingly beginning to rely on it too.

It wants to develop alternatives to big game safaris and gorilla-tracking vacations to boost growing numbers of visitors.

But violence in neighboring Congo and at home pose significant challenges to building the tourism sector in a country once dubbed the Pearl of Africa.

Insecurity is the industry's biggest threat, coupled with Uganda's image as one of Africa's most violent states during the 1970s and the bloodshed of the late dictator Idi Amin's rule.

"We are still portrayed as a brutal country because of our history," the tourism commissioner, Moses Okua, said in a recent interview with a state-owned newspaper.

"Our priority . . . is aggressive marketing of Uganda because it may be a long time before that is totally cleared."

Officials say a vital part of the campaign is improving security for tourists visiting its far-flung national parks.

Ugandan tourism suffered its worst blow in 1999 when militiamen crossed from Congo and hacked to death eight foreigners after kidnapping them in Bwindi, a forest reserve home to mountain gorillas.

Officials insist the parks are now safe, but clashes have taken place in recent months in neighboring parts of Congo.

There have also been damaging reports from northern Uganda, where Lord's Resistance Army rebels killed seven game rangers three years ago in Murchison Falls national park, which is famed for its elephants, hippos and crocodiles.

Residents have reported renewed LRA activity along the northern edge of the park in recent weeks.

Uganda rivaled neighboring Kenya and Tanzania as a wildlife destination in the 1960s before it was hit by decades of insecurity, social unrest and bad government.

But visitors are slowly coming back, and officials say tourism contributed more than $200 million to government finances last year -- nearly the same amount brought in by its key exports fish and coffee combined.

For many tourists, Uganda's top attraction remains the chance to track rare mountain gorillas on the jungle-clad slopes along the borders with Congo and Rwanda.

A day's tracking costs at least $360, and the government hopes to lure other affluent visitors with rafting trips on the Nile River, climbing in the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains and world-class bird watching.

Along with insecurity, Uganda's image has also had to contend with the mass killing of hundreds of followers of a doomsday cult in 2000.

At least 780 followers of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God were slaughtered and buried in mass graves after a prediction the world would end at the start of the year failed to come true.

Also in 2000, there was an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in the north of Uganda.

East African tourism is still recovering from the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that were linked to al Qaeda.

But Ugandan officials remain confident the industry will continue to play a leading role in the country's economic growth, and have approved the building of at least three new multi-million dollar hotels this month alone.

George Kaganda, a barman, is at a lodge overlooking one of the Bunyaruguru crater lakes in Uganda, a country hoping to capitalize on a rise in tourism.