THE promotion of the country as a tourist destination or haven for foreigners suffers a major blow each time a foreigner gets arrested for violating laws protecting women and children.

Sex tourism and mail order brides were past scourges that government was able to minimize with an education campaign, proper tourism program and strict implementation of laws, with the help of the private sector.

The question of whether Cebu was getting quality foreign visitors was raised once again when American national Perry McNeely was arrested in a hotel here for allegedly bringing a 14-year-old girl in his room on Dec. 2, 2009.

But McNeely, said to be a former boxing promoter, was cleared of wrongdoing by the same girl. She recently issued an affidavit blaming the police, social workers and a non-government organization for forcing her into the room with McNeely so they could charge the American.

In an affidavit of desistance, she said McNeely did not rape her or hire her as a prostitute. She said she went to the hotel that day to ask help from McNeely because a friend told her so. The girl thought she was pregnant from her Filipino boyfriend, a Sun.Star Cebu news report on her affidavit said. "I heard that McNeely has a good heart," she said.

When she arrived at the hotel, she said policemen grabbed her and forced her into the room with McNeely and his companions. She said police, social workers and members of the International Justice Mission threatened to have her imprisoned if she did not sign the complaint.

The girl's father told the court McNeely paid the girl P30,000 to withdraw her complaint.

McNeely's past encounters with the law were in 2001 when he was charged with rape and acts of lasciviousness but these cases were dismissed, and in 2003, when he was detained for being an "undesirable alien." He eventually left the country. Immigration officials are checking how and when he returned.

Reactions to the news reports on the McNeely case came in fast. In online postings on the Sun.Star website at www.sunstar.com.ph, one said there is need to verify the girl's claims with statements of other witnesses. The truth should come out.

Another comment, apparently from a foreigner: "The very authorities, like in this case the police and even (social workers) who should protect citizens and visitors alike, and even the authority who should protect the under-aged, they use them for their own greed... I love this country, I love many of its people, they are good people, but there are also plenty of those greedy people in authority who abuse."

What the McNeely affair points to is the need for foreign visitors to remember they are guests in the country and they have to follow our laws. For the police, social workers and organizations working to protect women and children, the case reminds them of the challenges ahead and of the support of the community in cleaning up Cebu of abusive foreigners.

(ninicab@sunstar.com.ph)