The death of Nelson Mandela has sparked a fit of interest in tours of Robben Island prison, where the inspirational leader was incarcerated in the 1970s and 1980s. The appeal of sites, visitor centres and museums linked to atrocities and tragedy is known as “Dark Tourism” – a term that has recently slipped into the mainstream.

There are numerous morbid destinations currently popular with travellers around the world – from Ground Zero in New York, to the JFK trail recently promoted in Dallas, to mark the anniversary of the president’s assassination.

But the phenomenon is nothing new, according to Professor J John Lennon, vice dean at the Glasgow School for Business & Society and a lecturer in dark tourism.

Our ancestors, after all, visited Roman gladiatorial games, honoured death in pilgrimages to Canterbury, and enjoyed days out at public executions.

Professor Lennon coined the term “dark tourism,” along with another professor, in 1996. Since then there has been a flurry of sociological research attempting to explain our attraction to all things macabre.

His research shows that visitors to the former concentration camp at Auschwitz remain significant, with more than 1.43m people making the journey there each year. The fatal car crash involving Diana, Princess of Wales prompted a pilgrimage to the Parisian underpass where it happened, as did her burial to Althorpe.

Adrian Bridge, a Telegraph Travel editor, was one of those who went to pay his respects.

“I was curious,” he said. “I went and stood at the junction and, although it was busy with traffic, there was a poignancy to it. There is something quite powerful about being at a scene where something like that took place.”

Professor Lennon believes such tourist activity is “motivated by a desire for actual or symbolic encounters with death.”

If we visit dark tourism sites, not just to tick a box but because we want to remember a tragedy and be affected by it, it follows that we should want to behave respectfully.

There was certainly some outrage expressed recently when President Obama was seen taking a selfie photograph at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. The rules of conduct for visitors to the Field of Stelae memorial for murdered Jews in Berlin, for example, forbid loud noises, calling and shouting, music, dogs, cycling and sunbathing.

“Sites of mass killing,” suggested Professor Lennon, “particularly those associated with the Jewish holocaust, present major challenges for interpretation and invariably questions arise concerning the nature of motivation for visitors.”

Where the sympathies and behaviour of visitors cannot be relied upon, appropriate conduct can be imposed. Guards at the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam are on hand to ensure visitors walk in single file and maintain a respectful countenance.

It is for those planning attractions that commemorate death too to consider what kind of reaction they want.

“The emotional impact of such sites is not culturally straightforward, it is about more than creating reflective memories for the visitor,” said Professor Lennon.

And turning the location of a tragedy into a profit-making tourist attraction is not something that can be done without proper consideration.

“There is a clear profit motive at a number of such sites,” he said. “Even if admission is free there are secondary revenue streams from retail, catering and so forth.

“Concentration camps are usually operated by trusts which use a contribution from sales for maintenance and staffing costs.”

Indeed, tours to Chernobyl – the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident – were closed in 2011 after it was alleged that the takings were not being spent on cleaning up the area’s deadly radioactive legacy.

Profits aside, the impact of dark tourism sites on local communities needs also to be considered. Londonderry is a Capital of Culture this year and its more famous attractions include large street murals depicting the Troubles.

Some commentators have suggested that these should be updated with something more positive, and that the city should not be forever looking to the past.

But Professor Lennon believes it is more important to ensure that events presented are historically accurate.

“Many locations have a tragic past (Paris and the revolution, Berlin at the heart of the Nazi government), but that does not mean such places cannot change,” he said.

“The murals in Northern Ireland are associated with a period of history but remain a major attraction because of the images of the period they detail. New images of a peaceful and prosperous location are unlikely to exert the same fascination.”

He pointed out that visiting dark tourism sites may be a crucial way for us to learn the lessons of the past, whether or not current governments want us to.

“When we look at which sites are maintained and developed and which are not, it provides an insight into which are acceptable and unacceptable histories,” he said.

“The Cambodian government, for example, has been slow to conserve and finance the interpretation of the killing field sites of the Khmer Rouge, therefore mapping the acts of this particularly barbarous regime.

“But to remain silent and not to record and interpret these events for tourists, may encourage future generations to ignore or forget these terrible periods of human history. Dark tourism, like our dark history, occupies an important part of our understanding of what it is to be human.”

Photo Credit: U.S. President Barack Obama tours Robben Island with first lady Michelle Obama, near Cape Town, June 30, 2013. Jason Reed / Reuters