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Australia's oldest micronation is no more thanks to Covid-19

(CNN) — The 50-year reign of an Australia-based micronation formed by a "prince" has come to an end.

Hutt River, a self-declared principality, issued its own passports and once even declared war on Australia. In recent years, however, it's been known as a quirky tourist attraction.

But the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with a giant tax bill, have forced the principality to announce it will finally surrender to Australia.

Hutt River's origins as a micronation date back to 1970, when the late Prince Leonard Casley claimed he'd exploited a legal loophole to create the principality in an isolated part of Western Australia, 500 kilometers (310 miles) north of state capital Perth.

Set on 75 square kilometers of farming land, it was more than twice the size of Macau but populated by less than 30 people.

The principality -- though not officially recognized by the Australian government -- acted like an independent nation. Its government granted visas and driver's licenses, issued passports and currency, produced its own stamps, flew its own flag and reportedly operated 13 foreign offices in 10 different countries, including the US and France.

Now its rollicking journey is over.

Prince Leonard Casley, pictured in 1998 with his French-born wife, Princess Shirley.

Prince Leonard Casley, pictured in 1998 with his French-born wife, Princess Shirley.

Olivier Chouchana/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

When Prince Leonard died in February last year he left behind a US$2.15 million tax bill, which forced his son and successor, Prince Graeme Casley, to announce last week the principality would sell its land to pay the debt.

Casley told CNN Travel he was devastated to dissolve the micronation.

"It's very sad watching your father build up something for 50 years and then you have to close it down," said Casley. "They're very harsh times economically and health wise around the world due to Covid and we're feeling that too."

Australia's most famous micronation

Micronations are entities that claim to be sovereign states but aren't legally considered independent, as opposed to microstates like Vatican City, which have internationally recognized sovereignty.

Australia has spawned far more micronations than most countries.

Over recent decades, dozens of its citizens have declared independence from Australia, and set up their own nation within a nation.

Leonard Casley founded the Principality of Hutt River in 1970.

Leonard Casley founded the Principality of Hutt River in 1970.

Olivier Chouchana/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

None, however, are as renowned as the Principality of Hutt River -- also known as Hutt River Province -- which has created headlines across the world for the past 50 years.

While Prince Leonard originally decided to secede from Australia over his disagreement with farming regulations, he turned the principality into a unique tourist attraction, with visitors arriving to buy passports, currency and stamps.

But, like tourism destinations around the world, the principality had been left vulnerable due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

Tourism was one of Hutt River's key sources of income, particularly over the past 15 years, as the Internet helped spread its odd tale across the world.

It's been closed to travelers since January but, previously, Hutt River's self-proclaimed "Royal Family" went to great effort to make their micronation intriguing to tourists. Visitors who arrived at the property were greeted by a member of the family, who first helped them secure their entry visa, which cost US$2.50.

For many visitors, just getting a Hutt River Principality stamp in their passport made the trip worthwhile.

Once this process was completed they were escorted through the principality's main buildings by a staff member who explained the local history. Travelers could visit the principality's Post Office to send a letter or buy Hutt River stamps, then peruse the Memorabilia Department and Historical Society, before enjoying a light meal in its tea rooms.

There was currency, too. Visitors could buy and spend the Hutt River dollar, which was traded one-to-one for the Australian dollar.

Other attractions included a non-denominational chapel and Princess Shirley's Sacred Educational Shrine. Named after Prince Leonard's wife, it displayed findings relating to religion and physics and was established with the help of academics of the principality's "Royal College of Advanced Research".

The souvenir shop at the Principality of Hutt River in Western Australia.

The souvenir shop at the Principality of Hutt River in Western Australia.

Stuart Forster/Shutterstock

And then there was the Royal Art Collection, made up of 300 pieces scattered through these buildings, as well a giant bust of Prince Leonard, carved from rock by a Canadian artist.

The walls of these buildings were also adorned by documents, news clippings and photos related to the principality and its history -- including the time in 1977 when Prince Leonard declared war against Australia.

When he learned the Australian government was pursuing the principality over unpaid taxes, he reportedly consulted his own government and, rather than pay, decided to declare war. How he intended to wage battles was not clear, given the Royal Hutt River Defence Force was not established until 11 years later.

This force included an army, a navy and a military college, which developed artillery manuals and training programs so impressive they were adopted by affiliates of the US Army, claims Hutt River's official website.
This giant bust of Prince Leonard was carved from rock by a Canadian artist.

This giant bust of Prince Leonard was carved from rock by a Canadian artist.

Stuart Forster/Shutterstock

Prince Leonard's war against Australia lasted only a few days, and this brazen show of force did nothing to deter the Australian Taxation Office.

The ATO continued to pursue the Principality over unpaid bills, which belatedly prompted its surrender last week.

Though disappointed, successor Graeme Casley says he's "very proud" of what his father achieved and hoped its story would be remembered for generations to come.

"I have so many wonderful memories of living here (in the principality)," he said. "Once mum passed away (in 2013) I spent five years full time working alongside my father and it was more than just a father-son relationship we had a very deep working relationship.

"What he created here over the last 50 years is amazing, it's really a unique story that people around the world have read about, and it won't just be forgotten about now."

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