There are numerous arguments regarding the attitudes of different tourists and scenic destination managers regarding virtual tourism. However, it remains difficult to understand the public's attitude towards virtual tourism in a crisis situation. In this way, under the influence of COVID-19, this study explores the public sentiment and drivers of virtual tourism using Python and the grounded theory method. The results reveal that tourists' positive sentiment in virtual tourism dominates, with few tourists showing negative or neutral sentiment polarity. Furthermore, there is an obvious law of time decay in the intensity of public sentiment. Especially as the crisis fades, the supplementary effect of virtual tourism on on-site tourism weakens. Moreover, project design, experience quality, travel convenience, travel cost, travel motivation and destination attractiveness are the critical factors affecting tourist sentiment. The findings provide implications for the sustainable development of both destination and virtual tourism in a new world order post-COVID-19.